This is what Danny Ainge was looking for.
It may have seemed tough to fathom over the first 30 or so games of the season as the Celtics could never really get going then culminated that mediocre stretch with a horrifying, four-game losing streak during which they were barely competitive.
But now that they've won their last five straight, Avery Bradley is back in the starting lineup and defending with his usual ferocity and the rest of the players' roles are more clearly defined, we can finally see something growing out of the seeds Ainge sowed this past summer.
The bench has been huge over this winning streak, particularly in Wednesday night's win over Phoenix and Friday night's over Houston. In those two games, the reserves have scored 87 points while posting a remarkable +115. Those are tough numbers to top. And the burden the bench play has taken off of oldsters Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce (as well as Rajon Rondo, who looks like he's playing hurt) over this recent stretch is a big one.
Defensively, the Celts, who held the NBA's top offensive team in the Rockets to under 44 percent shooting on Friday night, are looking more like the title contenders they've been for the past five-plus seasons as opposed to the pretenders they appeared to be prior to Bradley's return. His tenacity and effort, his will to defend, is rubbing off on everyone, especially Courtney Lee, who had bust written all over him until about a week ago, but is now playing as well as anyone in the second unit. Even Jeff Green has woken up, submitting three consecutive good games, all of them peppered with aggressive drives to the basket, timely perimeter shooting, solid hustle on defense and an intensity Celtics' fans have rarely seen out of him. Go back and watch his reaction to the TD Garden crowd after Friday night's soaring dunk on which he posterized Rockets' center Omer Asik if you don't believe it.
And of course, there's Jared Sullinger, who is playing like the top 5 pick he would have been had he come out of Ohio State after his freshman year instead of the free-falling, supposedly injury plagued, late first-rounder the C's were more than happy to gobble up at No. 21 in last June's draft.
Sullinger leads the entire NBA in plus/minus this month and is averaging 10 points and 10 rebounds over the course of the win streak. He's playing more minutes, receiving more responsibilities from coach Doc Rivers and is subsequently earning the respect of both his teammates and the league while he's at it (Rockets' coach/former Celtics' all-time Kevin McHale was front and center in that regard following Friday night's game, calling Sullinger, "kind of old school," and saying that the big rook, "bullied us down low a bit."). Suddenly, all the breathless conversation about how badly the C's need to make a big, splashy trade for a big man has subsided as Sullinger has taken the rebounding load and run with it. He's a beast on the glass at both ends, and anyone who has followed this team for the past few years knows that offensive boards have mostly been an afterthought. The different dimension he offers the Celts in that category is more than welcome.
This was Ainge's plan all along, folks. Lee and Jason Terry weren't signed to start at the 2 and thus have to play out of their element. They were brought in to provide scoring, defense and energy off the bench. Although Terry hasn't quite lived up to his reputation thus far, that's mostly happening. The starting lineup, the same one that led the Celts to the brink of another trip to the Finals last season is back intact. Everyone on the roster is finally playing the role carved out for him when this team was assembled last summer and the result thus far is five straight wins.
It's still too soon to tell whether the resurgent Celts are true contenders. Five games isn't enough of a body of work to accurately assess such a possibility. But it's nice to know that the plan heading into the season, and all the moves and decisions that went into implementing it, is finally working.