Nobody ever said that they would go quietly.
Despite a flurry of injuries to starters Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, and Jermaine O'Neal; the Boston Celtics, led by Paul Pierce, have won their last four games following an impressive 94-87 win over the Indiana Pacers that got them back to .500 for the first time since they were 3-3. The win marked the third time during the four game streak that the Celtics have beaten a team with a winning record, an important milestone for a team that had yet to win one against the league's best.
The team has won these games in a variety of different ways and with a variety of different lineups. In some cases, there has been production from unexpected places (see: rookie E'Twaun Moore making critical shots against Orlando on Thursday), odd lineup combinations (KG and Brandon Bass starting up front along with Avery Bradley in the backcourt), and record setting defensive performances (Tuesday against Orlando). But, the biggest reason for the big week has been a performance straight out of 2002 by the teams longest tenured member.
Pierce has been key for the team during the run, harkening back to the days of his youth when he frequently took 20 or more shots per game and was the teams sole source of offense. In the win over Indiana on Friday night, Pierce scored 28 points on 23 shots while grabbing 10 rebounds and dishing out eight assists. All this while still not feeling quite like himself as he continues to work himself into shape following a heel injury that caused him to miss the first part of the season.
"I still have a little bit of soreness after the games, but I'm pretty close. I'm probably at about 83.7%," the captain told reporters after the game last night.
The easy thing to do after a game like this is to proclaim that the Celtics have turned the corner and are well on their way back to being among the elite teams in the NBA again. A quick look at their upcoming schedule will give fans hope that this may actually be the case, as they have winnable games coming up against the Cleveland Cavaliers (twice) and Toronto Raptors before the schedule will begin to stiffen again (the Lakers, Bulls (x2), Mavericks, Thunder, and Grizzlies all are on tap in February). However, I would caution against getting too carried away with the teams current winning streak.
While Pierce is undoubtedly playing exceptionally well right now and Kevin Garnett isn't hurting the team the way he was at the beginning of the season, the odds that he can continue on this torrid pace at his age while playing 35+ minutes a night are not high. Pierce is playing this many minutes purely out of necessity, as there is little to no production coming from the bench from players like Marquis Daniels or Sasha Pavlovic. If he is still not 100% as he intimated, the high minutes he's playing will begin to wear him down quickly.
The same is true of Garnett, who has far more miles on his knees that Pierce does and has really shown his age this season. KG did a terrific job on Orlando Magic star Dwight Howard during their two meetings this past week, but is still having trouble rotating on his help defense and continues to be exceptionally one dimensional on offense.
In addition, the small sample size can often be fools gold when it comes to making grand proclamations about the teams ability to compete at the highest levels. Just as an example, the Minnesota Timberwolves, the league's perennial laughing stock, have won six of their last nine games, including wins over some of the best teams in the Western Conference in the Clippers, Mavericks, and Spurs. Yet, you don't really hear anyone debating whether the T'Wolves are bound for the playoffs as they're closing in on .500 for the first time since they were 1-1 during the 2010 season.
Yes, the talent level and expectations are different, but the lesson here is not to get worked up over a sample size of four games. Players can get hot and teams can get hot, but as Celtics fans should be fully aware by now, it's the ability to play consistently well against the elite teams of the league that separates the haves from the have nots.
In the Celtics quest to prove that they have one more one good run left in them, the past week has been a good start. As they begin to get healthy over the next week or two (Allen and O'Neal are expected back shortly, while Rondo may be out longer), the month of February will be key for them. If the C's are able to come away with a .500 record against the top teams on their schedule next month along with the requisite wins over the lesser opponents, it will allow them to re-stake their claim as one of the three best teams in the Eastern Conference.