As the new year began, it seemed like a major change for the struggling Celtics was inevitable.
What a difference a week makes. Since their 10-point loss to the Grizzlies in Avery Bradley's first game back from surgery, Boston have strung together four consecutive wins, including two tough road victories against Atlanta and New York. They are now one game over .500 and only five and half games behind first place in the Atlantic Division, as they hope to close the gap during their five-game home-stand. Even though most Celtics fans are cautious about predicting this team's future, the sudden turnaround has certainly lifted spirits in Beantown.
While their improvement over the past week is a result of numerous factors, Avery Bradley's defensive pressure has been vital to the Celtics and their recent success. Not only do they have one of the best on-ball defenders back in the lineup, but Courtney Lee who was included in SI's All-Disappointment team and mentioned in various trade rumors has looked much better since Bradley's return.
During their winning streak, Boston has held teams to an average of 84.8 points per game, almost twelve points less than their average this season in points allowed. Their defense will be tested come Friday night, as the Celtics host James Harden and the Rockets, who are currently the league's best offense and have won five out their last six games.
Over the past few seasons it's been no secret that the men in green struggle on the boards, but an overlooked rookie has been able to make a difference as of late. Jared Sullinger's effort and positioning on both ends of the floor has been outstanding, earning him praise from around the league. Sullinger recorded the most playing time for the Celtics in their win over Phoenix on Wednesday night, also setting a career high in rebounds with 16. To have a young, energetic player who has the ability to crash the glass will do wonders for the worst rebounding team in the NBA. They haven't been efficient on offense, so second-chance points are crucial for the Celtics.
As the season wears on, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett's minutes are going to be carefully managed. Production from the bench will be a determining factor for the Celtics in this upcoming stretch of games before the All-Star break. If role players like Jason Terry and Jeff Green can find consistency and provide efficient minutes off the bench, not only will it make it easier for the starters, but the team as a whole will function much better.
Rajon Rondo must let his play do the talking and keep composed as the leader. Yes, his last suspension was absurd, but with a history of incidents the NBA won't tolerate any future brain fades by the star point guard. Alongside Bradley in the backcourt, Rondo has more options of what to do the ball, and once AB gets back in rhythm on offense the duo will cause havoc for opposing guards.
Despite all the trade rumors, Danny Ainge needs to stick with this group of guys for at least the month of January. The Celtics have an opportunity to improve their record immensely in the coming weeks, with home games against beatable teams. With the team almost at full strength, we'll get a better indication of the 2012-13 Boston Celtics and if they can seriously contend this season.