It wouldn't have surprised anyone if the Celtics had come out tonight and laid a rotten egg at home against the Orlando Magic. True, they were in their own building and the opponent was no one special, but coming off the rigorous week the Celtics were coming off, this one looked like a schedule loss waiting to happen.
The C's had just played five games in seven nights, including four off the road, capped off by a ridiculous buzzer-beating win over the defending champs in Miami. But ask Jeff Green, whose heroic shot sealed the deal for Saturday's comeback win, and the C's forward wasn't at all concerned about a letdown in this one.
"No," Green said confidently. "We knew that game was over with. I think everybody was on a high after the Miami game, but we knew that it was time to move on because we had a game today. In order for us to keep improving, we have to win games - then once we've won them, put it in the past and continue to move forward."
These are the new Celtics. Maybe last year's team, with its group of crusty veterans who struggled to give a consistent effort from week to week, would have rolled over and lost this one. And for a moment, it looked like tonight's C's would crumble, as they let Orlando peel a double-digit lead back to three, 65-62, midway through the third quarter.
But this team stayed letdown-free. They played with energy, poise and unselfishness for the final 18 minutes, and the result was a big third-quarter push followed by a 33-point explosion in the fourth. The Celtics won 120-105, their fourth consecutive victory, and now they're improbably sitting alongside the 76ers in first place in the Atlantic Division.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the Celtics now and a week ago is the team's dynamic pair of guards. With Jordan Crawford in the starting lineup playing the point and Avery Bradley shifted off the ball, both players are thriving. Crawford shot 7-of-12 in tonight's win, finishing with 16 points, 10 assists and zero turnovers. Bradley shot 10-of-15 and finished with 24, his highest scoring output in two years.
The pairing looks bizarre on paper, but it's working out.
"They're playing really well together," coach Brad Stevens said. "They played together some in the first four games, and even in the preseason, but they didn't play well this well together. They're really in a nice rhythm right now. They complement each other well."
The guards' success is enabling everyone else to get involved, too. With both of them knocking down jump shots, it's spreading the floor and enabling a whole host of supporting players to shine.
"Not just me and Jordan," Bradley said. "I think we're improving as a team. Just coming out here, being able to make shots and executing our plays."
All in all, seven Celtics finished in double figures. Aside from the starting backcourt, the C's got 16 points each from Green and Kelly Olynyk, 14 from Jared Sullinger, 12 from Courtney Lee and 10 from Brandon Bass.
"It's awesome," Green said of the balance. "It's awesome. It's hard for other teams to scout us when we have so many guys that can be aggressive and put up numbers like that. That's what we've got to do. We can rely on just myself or anybody else to try to make plays."
Maybe a few weeks ago, Green would have been eager to put all the scoring responsibility on himself. Not so much anymore. Maybe that's coaching. Maybe it's Green learning for himself what works and what doesn't - trial by fire. In any event, Green's figuring things out, and the rest of the team is, too. This group is showing maturity that few would have predicted a week ago.
With this four-game surge, we may see a change in the way the rest of the league views the Celtics. They've earned a little respect now, and with that respect may come a tougher fight from their next few opponents. That said, Stevens isn't at all worried about how his team can handle high expectations.
"Same way you handle the low ones," Stevens said. "You just try to get better every day and do your job. I haven't seen any unbelievable celebrations in the locker room or anything else - we're just pretty matter-of-fact. We move on to what's next. The better teams that I've coached have been that way."
Green agreed: "We can't get too high off of one game. The season's 82 games long, plus more if we make the playoffs."
Wait a minute. Did he say playoffs?
Yep. These are the new Celtics. They're singing an entirely different tune from a week ago.