If the Celtics are going to stick around atop the Atlantic Division for a while, proving that the lead they've built up through these first 25 games is more than fool's gold, they'll need to continue winning games like this. To say the least, this one was a test.
The opponent wasn't much on paper - the visiting New York Knicks were 6-15 entering tonight's game, flirting with dead last in a miserable Eastern Conference, and the Celtics had just beaten them by 41 points five days earlier. And when the C's pounded them into the second quarter, going up 48-31 midway through the frame on a big 3 from Courtney Lee, it looked like yet another easy win.
But the Knicks roared back, thanks in no small part to a scoring outburst from an upstart Andrea Bargnani, and they eventually claimed a double-digit lead of their own - 79-68 early in the fourth quarter. To win, the Celtics needed to find some resolve deep within them - and this time, they found it. The C's have had their share of blown leads and disappointing second halves this season, but they made sure that tonight wasn't one of them.
"It's just added confidence," Jeff Green said, reflecting on the team's eventual 90-86 win. "It shows that we're getting better from game to game. Earlier in the season, we had this type of game, and we lost a couple of them. Now, we've learned since the beginning of the season, and we know how to correct ourselves and put ourselves back in position to win the game."
The Celtics have had some games like this the last month and a half. They blew a big lead and lost to Milwaukee in their home opener. They held in there early against a few good teams - Portland, San Antonio, most recently the Clippers on Wednesday - but fell apart in the second half. Tonight, though, the Celtics showed something. They didn't want to come up short down the stretch again.
"That's exactly what our team needed," coach Brad Stevens said. "We needed to have a lead, lose it, be backed up against the wall and then figure out a way to win. We've talked about how in some of these games, like Wednesday night, the air kind of went out of our tires in the third quarter. We didn't feel like we could stay connected through the whole last 24 minutes.
"What you want to do is tighten up even more, stay together, become even more accountable, even more resilient, tougher together. That's what happened tonight."
The weird thing about this one is how unpredictable the Celtics' individual pieces were. Jordan Crawford is the reigning conference Player of the Week; he shot 0-for-8 tonight, including five missed treys. Green had been aggressive all month before tonight, but he attempted just seven shots. Jared Sullinger was lights out in the first half, victimizing Bargnani in the post and scoring again and again; in the second half, he mostly sat and watched Vitor Faverani play instead.
The C's found heroics in unlikely places. Instead of the usual scorers, it was Courtney Lee, Avery Bradley and Faverani making it rain jump shots. As for Green, he didn't have much offensively, but he locked down on Anthony and forced him into a miserable shooting performance in the fourth quarter. There was nothing conventional or predictable about it, but the Celtics made enough plays to win, and you could argue that a month ago, they didn't have this performance in them.
"We're a team, and that's what teams do," Kelly Olynyk said. "Sometimes, some guys aren't going to have the best nights, so you've got to come in as a bench and lift those guys up."
The great thing, where this team's long-term growth is concerned, is that no one player seems to be fretting much about his own numbers or his own individual kudos. Take Sullinger, for example - he had 17 points and six rebounds at the half, and he would have had ample reason to complain about not seeing much burn in the later minutes. Instead, he was content to stand aside and watch.
"I'm happy for Vitor," Sullinger said. "As Coach Stevens has said, his minutes have been inconsistent, but he's sat there and been a pro's pro, hasn't complained, hasn't done anything. It's really helped him out. He came in and played well tonight and helped us win. I think every single guy has helped us in our 11 wins this year."
That's the spirit this Celtic team needs to have. This team has no superstars - no Carmelo, no Chris Paul, no dominant player that will carry the load when all else fails. If the C's are going to keep winning games and retain this division lead, they'll need to keep winning games in unorthodox ways. To that end, tonight was a nice little learning experience.