There's something fundamentally different about these Celtics. Watching them now, it's difficult to believe they're the same team who, just nine days ago, sat at 14-17, outside the East playoff picture and looking in. That group was battered, bruised and disillusioned; this team has won five consecutive games, against good teams, and rather convincingly at that.
The Jan. 11 Celtics are nothing like the Jan. 2 club. This team has spirit. They have competitiveness. They have -- at long last -- an identity.
Sure, "identity" is usually a useless, insipid buzzword in sports. It's revisionism -- good teams have identity because they're good and bad teams lack it because they're bad. But with this Celtic team, the term has a very specific meaning. It means everyone has an established role -- the starters are the starters, the bench guys are the bench guys, and each player does the job he was planning to do all along this season.
The chain reaction began a week ago, when Avery Bradley made his second appearance of the season and Brandon Bass started alongside him for the first time, reuniting the starting five that had carried the Celtics to the Eastern Conference finals last season. That unit played its game -- methodical pace, hard-nosed defense, fundamental unselfish team basketball -- and in turn, the second unit came into its own.
Courtney Lee and Jason Terry are now full-time reserves; Jared Sullinger and Jeff Green are chugging along with them. Each player fits beautifully into his assigned place, and each player has contributed nicely to the Celtics' winning streak.
The C's have now won five straight games, largely thanks to an exciting, rejuvenating young guard. Ironically, win No. 5 came tonight against the Houston Rockets and Jeremy Lin, who knows all about winning streaks fueled by exciting, rejuvenating young guards.
"Avery's return has helped," Doc Rivers said after this latest win, 103-91 over Lin and the visiting Rockets. "The second unit is the second unit now. JET's not in the first unit, or Courtney. It's pretty solidified who the second unit is. Now when we practice, that group's always together."
Together, that second unit has found a rhythm. Lee played suffocating defense on James Harden off the bench tonight, helping the Celtics to become the first team to hold Harden under 25 points since... well, the Celtics, who also accomplished the feat on Dec. 14. Meanwhile Green gave the team energy and explosiveness, including a pair of thunderous dunks that helped the C's to a double-digit lead in the second quarter. Sullinger chipped in 14 points and 11 rebounds, the second consecutive double-double for the inspired rookie.
"We've been working on it for the longest time," Sullinger said of the second unit's flow. "We've finally got it going now. I think Avery really put everybody back where they need to be. We've got Courtney coming off the bench now, we've got Jason coming off the bench now. Now everyone's back to the roles that they're used to."
As a matter of fact, it was the bench guys who saved the Celtics' bacon in this one. The C's let up a 10-0 Houston run early; a flurry of misses from Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett led to a big Rockets lead. It wasn't until Rivers yanked the starters and leaned heavily on Sullinger and Lee that things began to turn.
"Our bench was huge," Rivers said. "Our bench tonight, that's what saved the game for us. At the end of the first and through most of the second quarter, we left them out there. They're just playing so free, so together. They're defending -- that's the big difference, they're defending now. When they get stops, they can run, and there's no ball pressure that can be put on them without having a quote-unquote 'point guard' on the floor. They've been really good."
"The bench is helping us," agreed Garnett. "The bench is keeping us all in rhythm. The bench is saving us. Everybody who's coming off the bench is giving us great minutes. The combination of Courtney Lee and Avery is a hell of a combination. It's hard to beat us now."
It sure is. Not only have these Celtics won five straight games, but with their next two being Charlotte and New Orleans, both at home and both fully rested, they're likely headed for seven straight.
Nine days ago, this team was reeling; now, they've got their sights set on a return to the East's elite.
"We're just playing hard," Sullinger said. "We're in a groove right now."