Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports
Three games isn't the greatest sample size for such a statement, but sometimes it doesn't take long for a drastic change.
From one three-game span to another, it's not a stretch to say the Celtics have turned their season around.
Coming off the worst road trip in the Kevin Garnett era, Boston looked like a defeated team. A team without an identity. A team without answers. A team without heart.
The problems seemed too large and too encompassing for a player like Avery Bradley to solve upon his return. For as many people who labeled him the savior, there were more that denied he would be the fix. His perimeter defense, no matter how helpful, would not solve the rebounding and front-line issue. He would not solve the bench's inconsistency. Four games into Bradley's return, those naysayers were right. Partly.
Bradley has been a solution, but he's been only one half of the turnaround. The other is Jared Sullinger, who has improved seemingly every game and has taken on the responsibility of fixing much of the front-court issues. With both those players contributing every night now, the Celtics have regained the "grit and balls" and "bar fight" mentality they were so sorely lacking in the first two months of the season.
The counting numbers might not be impressive for the duo, but advanced statistics back up what the eyes show: both players are integral to Boston's success.
Bradley's man-to-man defense is incredibly infectious. His full-court pressure and aggressive hounding of the ball forces opposing teams to get in their set with much of the shot clock already wasted. Rajon Rondo benefits the most individually from Bradley's defense, allowing him to do his usual roaming and jumping of the passing lanes. No longer does Rondo have to fight through as many screens set for the primary ball-handler and can focus on what he does best.
However, where Bradley may have the most impact with his defense is the pick-and-roll game. He's able to get over most screens and only requires an aggressive show by a big man for a second before he gets back in front of his assignment. This has allowed the likes of Garnett, Sullinger and Brandon Bass to drop down back into the paint and sniff out any cuts to the rim. Granted Bradley has been back for only four games, but during his time on the floor, the Celtics allowed an insanely low 0.89 points per possession prior to the win over New York. That ranks as the lowest mark by any player in the league who plays significant minutes.
Sullinger, meanwhile, has been arguably just as impressive on the defensive end. He might not be blocking shots, but his defensive rotations are vastly underrated for a rookie. He's also one of the few Boston players who takes charges consistently and whenever he's not getting whistled for a foul, he's helping the defense function at a high level. When Sullinger is in the game, the Celtics are allowing 1.02 points per possession. It's not close to Bradley's mark but for comparison sake, Boston allows 1.00 points when Garnett is on the floor. Remember when Garnett's plus-minus was at a ridiculous +121 at one point this season? Well, that number has now inevitably dropped to +35, tied with one other player for the team-high: Sullinger.
Rebounding-wise, it's clear how important Sullinger is on the glass. Where he has gone above-and-beyond is being a menace on the offensive end. His knack of gaining great position as the shot goes up has got the Celtics extra possessions, whether it's by rebound or drawing a loose-ball foul. Even when he doesn't get Boston the ball back, he's always making an effort and that desire, like Bradley's defense, rubs off on the rest of the team.
Bradley and Sullinger are also a +3.9 and +2.7, respectively, for the team net points per their 48 minutes. Those are the two highest marks on Boston.
The bench has started to gain a rhythm with players now getting comfortable with their roles and playing time. In the three-game win streak, the second unit has scored 31 points against Indiana, 19 against Atlanta and 39 against the Knicks. While Jason Terry is still trying to find his shooting stroke, Courtney Lee has started to come around. Jeff Green might not be living up to the lofty expectations of many, but he'll produce a performance like the one he had in New York here and there.
As for Garnett, Rondo and Paul Pierce, they're still doing what they've always done. But if there's one thing Celtics fans have learned over the past few years, it's that the supporting cast is just as important for success. While the talent of this year's surrounding cast might be the best since 2008, it's only recently starting to show the heart that many of the previous role players displayed.
Again, it's only been three games, but when we look back at the Celtics regular season, I'm convinced we'll view this stretch as the turning point and give the credit to two of the team's youngest players.