BOSTON — As encouraging as the Boston Celtics have played at times this season, the one complaint among their fan base has been the team’s lack of consistency. Entering Sunday’s game against the New York Knicks, the Celtics had not won — or lost — more than three games in a row this season, enduring two stretches of each variety. In a roller coaster of a season, the Celtics have expressed cautious optimism at the peaks and lamented the frustrations in the valleys.
With Sunday’s 100-91 win over the visiting Knicks, the Celtics opened their first four-game winning streak and moved to five games above .500 for the first time since mid-March 2013, when the Big Three still roamed the Garden. With an agreeable schedule ahead, the Celtics seem to understand the potential to build some momentum and consistency heading into the new calendar year.
“That’s what you call getting your swagger back,” said Celtics swingman Jae Crowder, who only eight days ago wondered where Boston’s passion and swagger had gone as the team endured one of its three-game losing streaks. On Sunday, Crowder made Carmelo Anthony work for all 29 of his points and did enough to help Boston grind out a win over a physical New York squad, with both teams having played on consecutive nights.
“We’re just coming out confident,” Crowder said. “Guys are stepping into shots. Guys are taking pride on the defensive end, and that’s what it’s all about, that transition into getting wins. I think once we keep figuring that out, we’ll continue to get better.”
Isaiah Thomas provided a lift on offense for the Celtics, who moved five games above .500 for the first time since March 2013. Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty Images
After Sunday’s win, the Celtics own the second-best defensive rating in the league, tied with the Golden State Warriors in allowing 97.4 points per 100 possessions (only the San Antonio Spurs are better at 92.8). When the Celtics were winning games earlier in the season, it was often in convincing fashion, though they’d lose the same way. It left their fan base sea sick.
During this current four-game stretch, Boston has often had to grind but is finding ways to lean on its defense and pull out wins.
“Confidence-builder; it’s definitely a confidence-builder knowing that, even though we haven’t played that well in these games, we’ve somehow got the win,” said Isaiah Thomas, who finished with a team-high 21 points. “And that says a lot about this team. Hopefully we can get a few more and, first off, start taking care of business against the Lakers [on Wednesday].”
It’s the defense that leaves ESPN.com’s Basketball Power Index particularly sweet on the Celtics. Boston entered Sunday’s game ranked fifth in the NBA in BPI, just one spot behind the Eastern Conference-best Cleveland Cavaliers.
Boston’s next three games are against the Lakers and Nets, two teams with a combined 13 wins. Add in a visit from a Pistons team that Boston beat on the road this past Saturday, the BPI projects Boston to win all four games.
Here’s the more intriguing part: BPI forecasts Boston to win 11 of its next 12 games, the only projected loss being in Chicago on Jan. 7. What’s more, BPI favors Boston to win 19 out of its next 21 games leading up to a Feb. 5 game in Cleveland (the only other projected loss in that span is a visit to Toronto on Jan. 20).
Zoom way out, and BPI gives Boston the edge in 28 of its next 32 games, a staggering number when you consider the Cavaliers are projected to lose seven games in that span.
No one is expecting the Celtics to win 87.5 percent of their next 32 games, but it speaks to the schedule that looms that Boston is favored most nights. Already starting a slow climb in the tight Eastern Conference with this current four-game winning streak, Boston has a real opportunity to position itself well for any late-season push for a prime playoff spot.
More reason for optimism: The Celtics received a boost Sunday with the return of second-year guard Marcus Smart, although minor injuries are nagging their frontcourt (Amir Johnson is battling plantar fasciitis and David Lee has sat out two games because of back spasms). The Celtics, though, have a chance to separate themselves a bit from the pack.
“Right now, we are getting back to trying to execute and be great defensively,” Evan Turner said. “That’s pretty much it. Communication has been pretty good. We just been trying to play hard, close teams out, and be the aggressor. I think we have been doing a great job of being the aggressor, moving people around and coming out with the most energy.”
Boston’s rediscovered swagger was on full display after Sunday’s win. Turner wore blue-tinted Elton John-like shades to his media confab, and Jonas Jerebko, the dagger-inserter during last Saturday’s win in Detroit, strutted through the locker room in a brilliant knee-length fur coat.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens won’t let his team get too content with its play. He has repeated over and over again, especially during Boston’s stretches of better play, that this team simply isn’t good enough to show up and win.
But when the Celtics commit to playing defense, limit their turnovers, and play with a belief that they can hang with anybody, they give themselves a chance to win.
This stretch is a chance for Boston to build both its swagger and its confidence. It’s a chance to leave the roller coaster in 2015 and start a steady climb toward their playoff goals in 2016.