Dare I say the Celtics' defense against the San Antonio Spurs through the first two and a half quarters of last night's 90-83 win was reminiscent of the defense we all expected out of this team at the start of the season? The lane was clogged, the C's were extremely aggressive and active and San Antonio was forced into some pretty ugly turnovers. The Spurs shot a mere 7-22 (31.8 percent) en route to just 15 first quarter points and couldn't even crack 40 by the end of the first half as the C's led 46-39 heading into the break. That 39-point number is actually somewhat misleading, as the Celtics had the Spurs smothered at the 34-point mark before San Antonio managed to rattle off five quick points in the final minute of the second quarter.
Unfortunately this squad still has yet to really put four quarters of consistent "Celtics Defense" together this season and I was hopeful last night would be the night we broke through that barrier. But the Spurs did indeed manage to work their way back into the ballgame, largely due to DeJuan Blair exploding for 18 points and 11 rebounds. It does get frustrating when these opposing teams make their comebacks only because we long for this group of Celtics to stay dominant defensively for the entire game. Of course, with a team like San Antonio featuring guys like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the runs have to expected at some point.
That run came midway through the fourth quarter, as the Spurs whittled away what was a 15-point Celtics lead into a four-point, surmountable deficit, when Blair scored inside with 2:48 to go. Fortunately though - and this could be another sign of the continuing growth of this team - the Celtics won this game because of their defense. The lead they had built up earlier mercifully proved to be enough, because the offense was nowhere to be found after Rajon Rondo hit an encouraging jump shot with 2:02 left.
But that's when the defense took over for the remainder of the game. Kendrick Perkins contested a Duncan jump shot which couldn't find the net with 1:35 to go and after Kevin Garnett missed a jump shot at the top of the key with 33 ticks left, Tony Parker sprinted down the court in search of a quick bucket for his squad. Rondo had other plans though, and he stepped in Parker's path, stripped the ball from his hands and forced it off of Parker's outstretched leg out of bounds.
I credit the noticeable difference in the defense lately to a noticeable difference in the play of Garnett. Clearly the parallels between Garnett's energy and the aggressiveness of the defense are legitimate and we've seen more and more signs that the classic, bursting-with-energy KG is about to make a reappearance. He had another one of his moments with 1:40 to go in the third frame when Rondo threw up a lob pass, which KG caught in midair between two defenders and put it in off the glass. The emotion that followed after when he realized it went in is the sure fire sign he's feeling good again. I really don't think it's a coincidence that as Garnett continues to work his way back to 100 percent, so does this team's defense.
I've also been extremely impressed with the trust these players have shown in one another over the course of this six-game winning streak. This team epitomizes the word "selfless" and could very well be the best passing team in the entire league. It starts with Rondo, who's assists continue to pile up, and he's poised to be a legitimate double-double machine by season's end.
The team's total assists have been impressive as well as of late, judging by last night's 22 assists on 36 baskets and the 24 assists on 36 buckets against Charlotte on Tuesday. Or how about the 33 assists on 48 baskets against Toronto on Friday? This team is absolutely committed to finding the easiest shot available, which always involves players sacrificing their personal number of shots, which these guys clearly have no issue doing.
I look at a guy like Paul Pierce, who's shooting (not including last night) 44.6 percent from three-point nation on the season, but who routinely gives up his own shots to find guys open in better spots around the floor. How many times have we seen Pierce in a spot where he could easily jack up a lightly contested three, only to see him dish it to a guy like Brian Scalabrine or Eddie House in one of the corners?
We've also seen Pierce show the truest form of trust by electing to pass on a potential game-winning shot in order to find a wide open teammate. Two Sundays ago in New York, Pierce personally called the play that resulted in Garnett being wide open at the top of the key, and Pierce was happy to oblige with a quick pass off the double team he was fighting off. Garnett sank the shot, and Pierce's trust was rewarded. But say Garnett missed and the Celtics and Knicks went into double overtime, I bet Pierce would have run that play over and over and over for Garnett, or Allen, or practically anyone else on the roster.
Or what about the faith this team still has in a guy like Rasheed Wallace, despite the shooting slump he's been caught in for practically the entire season? Rondo had a shot at the rim in the waning seconds of the first half, but elected to kick it back out to a wide open Wallace who buried a three-pointer at the halftime buzzer. That's trust in your teammate.
This team's ability to recognize who has the hot hand and continue to feed that player will be one of its trademarks as the season continues to progress. Pierce has had his share of 20+ point nights, but as of late so have the likes of Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and even Kendrick Perkins. What you have to love is that Pierce, who scored 15 points against the Heat on Sunday, but has failed to reach double figures the past two games, doesn't pull the disgruntled super star mantra just because he hasn't had umpteen touches the past two games.
This team continues to progress in a wide variety of areas, but the Thunder probably won't be bowing out quietly tonight. Here's hoping the C's can wrap up this four-game road swing the right way,