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Dog days of March could lead to glory days in May for Celtics

03.07.12 at 9:31 am ET


At the end of the season, we’ll look back at the schedule and see the Celtics‘ 97-92 come-from-behind overtime victory over the Rockets in early March. The box score and game details will show that Boston was down 10, with just over 5½ minutes left, and coming off an emotional overtime win over the Knicks. All of these components add up to the type of game that galvanizes a team.

Not in the 2011-12 season, though. This was ugly basketball at its finest (or sloppiest, depending on how you want to look at it). Tuesday night’s game featured more candidates to be on Sportscenter’s “Not Top 10 Moments” than actual sound basketball plays. But after 53 grueling minutes of basketball, the Celtics were the ones that don’t have to look back regretting they lost a game neither team deserved to win.

“It was a no-energy game,” Doc Rivers said. “You can feel it. I even said at halftime even the building had no energy. It’s just one of those nights. And our guys kept talking about grinding the game.”

The Celtics fell behind by seven after one quarter. Uncharacteristically, Boston had a great second quarter, and took a six-point lead into halftime. The C’s bolstered the margin to double digits in the third quarter. The Rockets responded by going on an impressive 35-11 run that propelled them to a 10-point lead with just over 5½ minutes left.

“It was definitely a strange game,” Paul Pierce said. “It was a battle of wills. One team wanted it one quarter, then the [other the next]. Like a seesaw battle. They make a run, we make a run, they make a run. Nobody could really just put the other team away.”

As the Celtics’ four-game winning streak appeared to be in jeopardy, they turned to the foundation that this team has been built on these past five seasons — defense. Their rotations were crisp. Houston muddled around the perimeter, and with every swing pass the recipient was greeted by a Boston defender. The imposing defensive style forced consecutive shot-clock violations, and with just under two minutes left the Houston lead had dwindled to just three.

“The defensive energy picked up,” Ray Allen said. “When they went on a run, we weren’t getting any stops. They kind of dictated how the game was being played. We changed that by pushing them up away from the basket. Everything that they had was contested, and we got rebounds.”

The Celtics eventually forced overtime and pulled out a much-needed win. Looking back, however, it was maddening how every positive note was offset by a negative. Rajon Rondo had another great game but was non-existent in overtime after he botched a layup that would have sealed the victory in regulation. Allen buried a clutch 3-point shot in the final minute to give Boston an 84-82 lead, but then had a woeful turnover in overtime to keep the Rockets alive. Pierce was fantastic in overtime, scoring seven points, but had a dreadful 8-second violation at a critical juncture. Kevin Garnett passed Shaquille O’Neal for 12th place on the NBA’s all-time rebounding list during a game in which the Celtics were drastically outrebounded, 57-38.

In the grand scope of the season none of those minor details matter. The Celtics can pull ahead of the 76ers for the Atlantic Division lead with a win in Philadelphia Wednesday night. And here’s the thing — and there’s no getting around this: The Celtics have weathered the storm. They have navigated through injuries, trade rumors, the compacted schedule and the realization that this could be it for this core group of players. Now, all of the sudden they are within a game of securing a division lead, which is important as it would lead to home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Another thing to consider is the way the Celtics have won after the All-Star break. Each of the Big Four have had moments, proving that they may not individually take over games every night, but that they are, in fact, dangerous. After watching the Rockets implode while struggling to identify which player would take over, the Celtics can take comfort in the fact that they have four options who have shown time and time again they are more than capable. And in a league where LeBron James‘ fortitude is criticized for nearly three days for passing up a shot to win a game against the Jazz after deferring to Undonis Haslem, this luxury cannot be understated.

Games like Tuesday night won’t be shown on “Hardwood Classics.” For the Celtics, these games are a means to an end. As this team gains more confidence, the question is rapidly changing from when will the plug be pulled to how far can the C’s go?

“We’re fighters,” Garnett said. “We’re going to grind this thing out and see what we can do. If you know anything about us, or anything about this history the past five years, it’s that we grind and we work. We’re going to see how far we can take it.”

Read More: Doc Rivers, Pail Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen
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