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Garden Report: Resurgent Celtics start February strong with win over Magic

Many in Boston may already see this as a lost season for the Celtics, but their players aren't ready to give up. Today's win over the Magic proved that there's still some fight left.

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

There's no doubt that for many Celtics fans, the outlook for today's game with the visiting Orlando Magic was little different that the mindset heading into last Wednesday's game against the 76ers, or next Wednesday's game at Philly. When two terrible teams square off and a tantalizing rookie class is just a few months away in this spring's draft, the objective is fairly clear - tank with no remorse.

Even though the TD Garden filled to a pretty respectable level for a Super Sunday meeting between two of the league's worst, there was surely a good chunk of that crowd rooting for the Celtics to lose. After all, that's in the long-term best interest of the franchise.

Riggin' for Wiggins, Sorry for Jabari, Need for Embiid - the catchphrases have a nice ring to them. Losing February games makes a lot of sense for the Celtics' front office, and it has an understandable appeal to a Boston fanbase that's insatiably hungry to win more championships.

That concept is lost on players, though. Tanking now might have a positive impact on the Celtics over the next decade, but try telling that to Jared Sullinger, who's still on a rookie deal and has no idea what the future holds. Or Rajon Rondo, who is 17 months away from free agency, or Avery Bradley, who's a restricted free agent himself this summer. Or Jeff Green or Brandon Bass or any one of a host of other guys playing through trade rumors this season.

These guys are Celtics for now, but they're playing for their own individual pride more than anything else. So considering the devastating ego blow it must be to go 2-15 in the month of January, it's pretty nice for these players to get a W every now and again - as they did today, beating the Magic 96-89. If nothing else, it'll keep them sane.

"We needed this," said Bass, who started strong and finished with 19 points and nine rebounds to help anchor the Celtics. "We were able to get it, so it feels good."

Tanking might be the long-term outlook, but in the micro picture, a win sure does feel nice for a Celtic team that's endured a lot the last month. Amid all the travel, the difficult Western Conference opponents, the injuries and the personnel shakeups, it became easy to succumb to the tanking storyline and let the losses happen.

February is a clean slate, though, and the Celtics are now home, healthy and looking forward to a softer schedule. This win may have been the beginning of something.

"I thought it was very important for us to start the month off," said Rondo, who flirted with a triple-double with 19 points, 10 assists and six rebounds. "We don't gave a difficult month games-wise - we only play 11 games. There will be a lot of days where we get to rest, so we have to take advantage of the opportunity we have to prepare to teams, let our bodies heal and get some wins this month."

In the grand scheme of things, nabbing the occasional win against a bad team at home won't move the needle much for the Celtics. For reference: This victory moved the C's from the third worst record in the NBA to fourth, which changes their odds of the No. 1 pick from 15.6 percent to 11.9. In other words, the odds of a win like this costing you Wiggins are about the same as the odds of tossing heads five times in a row.

Which is to say: No one's thinking about draft position in February. The Celtics are just focused on improving their play and lifting their morale.

"It's us getting a win, more than anything," Bradley said. "It's something to build from. We've just got to continue to keep getting better as a team."

For those who thought the season was effectively over for the Celtics, you may want to think again. The C's still have 33 games left to play this year, and they plan on playing out this string to the best of their abilities.

"For sure," Bradley said. "We've always been a team like that. After the break, we usually play well because of having a leader like Rondo. He lets us know that anything's possible. We come out strong. We have a chance to break off a run and win eight games straight if we play harder than everybody else."

For Bradley and the Celtics, that's still the mindset. Even if thousands of their own fans resist, the players are going to keep fighting.

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