Don't blink just yet, and don't get your hopes up yet either, but the Boston Celtics have won two games in a row. Better yet, the Celtics have finally beaten a team above .500, and have looked pretty decent in both wins. And yes, they won both games without Rajon Rondo, and they beat the Magic without Rondo, Allen, or Pietrus. What are the chances you would have believed anyone if they would have told you last week that the Celtics would beat the Magic without those guys? Slim to none? I agree.
The Celtics have been widely successful over the past two games for a bevy of reasons, but the most obvious source of success has come on the defensive side of the ball. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and well, most of the rest of the team look to be close to being in shape again. When you combine that with the fact that Avery Bradley has been playing fantastic defense at the point guard position, and he hasn't made too many bad decisions and you will get a decent product out on the floor. Let's go over some of the statistics for the C's over the past two games.
Against Washington the Celtics had an offensive efficiency of 104.2, and a defensive efficiency of 97.9. The C's had an effective field goal percentage (eFG%) of 54.9%, an offensive rebound rate of 18.4, and a free-throw rate of 41.7. All of those numbers are better than the league average. Then again, remember who the opponent was and those numbers won't seem quite as sexy.
Paul Pierce seemed to be close to his old self against the Wizards. Paul had the highest usage rate (USG, percentage of offensive possessions in which a player was used while he was on the floor) at 36.9 out of any player that played in the game. He averaged 1.36 points per play, and scored a season-high 34 points. Paul shot 10-15 (66.7%) from the field, 2-5 (40%) from three-point range, and hauled in 8 rebounds. Perhaps the most helpful and encouraging statistic from Pierce's game against Washington was his assist totals -- 10. Without Rondo, Pierce knew he was going to have to be the player who ran the offense primarily. Bradley was the point guard, but almost every possession began with Pierce initiating the offense. Pierce scored on four isolation plays, once off of a spot-up, twice off of a screen, and once posting up. He got to the free-throw line 15 times, and shot 12-15 (80%) from the stripe. Simply put, Pierce was the engine that drove Boston's offense against Washington. The C's were most successful in plays coming off of screens against Washington (6-8, 75%), and transition opportunities (3-4, 75%). The C's got the most shots off of spot-up chances (6-15, 40%).
Mickael Pietrus and Avery Bradley both played decently well in extended roles and minutes against Washington as well. Pietrus was called upon at two different spots during the game (to spell Pierce, and when Allen went down), and scored 14 points on 5-8 (62.5%) shooting, 2-4 (50%) from beyond the arc. Avery did have 6 turnovers. However, two of his turnovers were the result of charges, and one was from a lazy pass by Brandon Bass. The others were just a byproduct of Bradley's quick motor in bringing the ball up the court, and it resulted in Avery getting out of control and losing the ball. Bradley had a pretty bad night shooting (1-8, 12.5%), but he made up for it with his defense and other efforts. Bradley raked in six rebounds and seven assists. While the offense was being run through Pierce a good bit of the night, Bradley made his fair share of good plays to get the ball into his teammates' hands in places where they could get high-percentage looks. This is encouraging for Boston regardless of the fact that Keyon Dooling is the true "back-up" point guard.
The next evening the Celtics then took on the Orlando Magic at home. This was a game that made hope spring eternal for Celtics fans. Why? The Celtics finally looked competent on offense, or rather, they were finally making their shots and getting stops. The Magic only managed ten points in the third quarter. TEN POINTS. And then they did the exact same thing in the fourth quarter. Why? Because why the heck not! TWENTY POINTS IN THE SECOND HALF?! Call it bad shooting, or call it an "off night", but what you can't call it is a bad defensive outing for the C's. Boston posted a 60.9 defensive efficiency rating. That's a whole thirty points below the NBA average. Spectacular. They held Orlando to an eFG% of 27.7, well below the league average of 48.0 The Magic were completely confused almost all evening. Dwight Howard played decent basketball (rather, he scored a double-double, but that's it), but he was pretty well covered in the post by Jermaine and Kevin. He was put on the free-throw line a total of 18 times (10-18), and he shot 4-15 from the field -- 18 total points, and 14 rebounds. Not a great evening for Dwight (despite those numbers) against two "terribly old and washed up" big men. In fact, the Magic were 1-10 (10%) from the field from 3-9 feet away from the basket, and 2-13 (23.1%) from beyond the arc -- both areas where the Magic tend to excel.
Who played the best against the Magic for the Celtics? I could discuss numerous players. Brandon Bass was fantastic off of the bench with 19 points and 8 rebounds. Sasha Pavlovic even had 9 points on 4-9 shooting, and he seemed much more comfortable in the offense and looked for his shot a whole lot more than usual. Pierce played well again shooting 6-14 (42.9%) from the field, and he dished out seven more assists and pulled down five rebounds. But the main player who impacted the game was Avery Bradley. In one word, Bradley was suffocating. His defense was tight on whoever he was matched up against the entire night, and he caused utter disruption in the Orlando offense. Oftentimes, Jameer Nelson wasn't even getting the ball to half court until there were 14 second on the shot clock, and they weren't even initiating their offense until there were 10-11 seconds left on the shot clock. That is textbook "endline-to-endline" defense. Bradley defended Nelson for the entire length of the court, and didn't allow any room for movement most of the time.
Bradley's defense didn't allow any baskets off of the pick-and-roll when he was the primary defender. Jameer Nelson scored on him in an isolation attempt just once, and that came at the end of the second quarter. He defended six spot-up attempts and allowed a basket to Jameer off of a kick-out from Howard when Bradley came down low to help on a double team, and he was scored on by Glen Davis when Bradley was caught on a switch at the free-throw line. The only other basket scored against Bradley was when he failed to rotate over to defend Larry Hughes late in the game on a spot-up attempt. Otherwise, he was stellar. Actually, there were not nearly as many shots taken against Bradley in this game as there were against Washington. By making the Magic have to work their offense with 14 seconds on the shot clock, he effectively made it impossible for his match-up to get a decent look at the basket once Nelson, Duhon or whoever else he was guarding gave the ball to another teammate. And, oh yeah. In the box score it may not look pretty, but in the win column it did. Bradley didn't commit a single turnover against Orlando. Anyone who watched the game against Orlando truly understands why Doc Rivers has been confident in Bradley's ability to contribute to this team.
These two wins seem to be huge stepping stones in the C's efforts to get back into contention in the Eastern Conference. Sure, it's early in the season. However, the way that Boston has been able to play and sustain their success for a full 48 minutes has been nothing but encouraging. Paul Pierce is finally looking like the Paul Pierce that was playing well last season. Kevin Garnett has been an impact player, and has been hitting his spot-up chances as well as getting to the rim a bit more frequently. Most of all, though, Avery Bradley has been playing disciplined basketball and he seems to be learning a lot in a short amount of time. He has learned that his defense lifts the rest of the team. He knows he is not out there to be Rajon Rondo. He's out there to bring energy, not be stupid, and play sound defense. He's done just that, and as long as these contributions continue while Allen and Rondo return to health then things in Boston might make a turn for the better after all.