Now, that was one heck of a week.
Let's face it, when the Celtics hopped on the team plane and headed towards the west coast for a six-game road trip, there weren't many people expecting them to improve their wining percentage. We've still got three games to go before the C's come back home to close out the month, but two victories in one week? Back-to-back?!?! I'll take it.
Boston was undoubtedly outmatched from a physical standpoint in Monday afternoon's MLK Day matinee versus Doc's Clippers, and it didn't take long to figure that out. As Brad Stevens went on to note in the postgame press conference, "it is a joke how athletic their bigs are." I'm not sure Big Baby was included in that assessment, but I digress.
Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan were simply too much to handle, combining for 41 points and 21 boards while Jordan put the icing on the cake by swatting six shots and forcing Tyler Zeller to increase his cardio regimen by 200%. The men in green refused to back down, but were buried 102-93 by the talent discrepancy combined with weak execution and yet another rough opening stretch.
Following a couple of days to travel and learn from their mistakes, the Celtics caught a little break as the Trail Blazers announced that a hand injury would keep LaMarcus Aldridge out of action. We don't like seeing anyone get hurt, but I'm sure coach Stevens didn't lose any sleep over it. With that said, winning in Portland is no cake walk whether they are shorthanded or not. Damian Lillard, as usual, gave the business to all backcourt opponents and dropped the heart of Celtic Nation with multiple buckets at a high degree of difficulty. Wesley Matthews gave us another reminder about why he is one of the league's best complementary players, as well, burying a flurry of timely jumpers late in fourth quarter and near the end of the shot clock.
However, the Celtics ate their Wheaties and for the most part, played consistently aggressive on the defensive end of the floor all night long. Coach Stevens remarked that "even the shots [Portland] made were tough." Boston held the Blazers to 37% shooting and even came away with a miniscule rebounding advantage, but it was the heart-throbbing resilience that earned them their fifth road victory of the season.
As Jared Sullinger fumbled the ball in the paint during the waning seconds of the game, it looked like the Celtics failed to execute another late-game set and were ready to collect another L. Then, just like that, Sully reminded the entire fan base why we like him so much - the guy is tough and intelligent. Not only did he earn a Tommy Point and save the possession, he still had the presence of mind to read the floor and find an open teammate while multiple white jerseys swarmed him from every angle. One or two blinks later, Evan Turner had his feet set beyond the arc and the rest cannot be summed up anyone better than Mike Gorman...
... "GOT IT!" Never change, Mike.
Just when you thought you couldn't have any more fun, the Celtics were back in action the very next night in Denver to take on Jameer Nelson and the Nuggets.
OK, timeout. There's a reason I mentioned Nelson right away, and it has nothing to do with the fact that he was traded to and from Boston in less than a month. I'm not the only one who saw him pull off the "Michael Jordan shrug" in the middle of his 11-point first quarter barrage, right? That happened.
That took me by surprise, but not nearly as much as what would transpire down the stretch of the tail-end of a back-to-back. Contrary to everything we have seen in the first half of the season, this team came together and not only played hard, but made big plays in tough situations. Evan Turner was the hero in Portland, but Avery Bradley was the cold blooded assassin in the Mile High City, knocking down two enormous pull-up jumpers in the final minute to put the Celtics on top.
Jameer Nelson torched the Celtics all night, tallying 23 points and seven assists against his former teammates, but couldn't answer Bradley on the final possession, sealing the second 1-point victory for Boston in two nights.
The difference in this team's sense of urgency is huge. Much has been made of this team's sporadic displays of toughness and ability to grind through difficult stretches, and rightfully so. This week, however, they really showed a lot of heart and that kind of visually contagious confidence carries over into your execution. This isn't the most talented team, but they are buying into the system and finally... finally... beginning to grow from adversity.
CELTICS PLAYER OF THE WEEK
15.7 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 3.7 APG, 1.7 SPG
Multiple Celtics have stepped up in different spots throughout the first half of this west coast swing, including Marcus Smart, Jared Sullinger and Evan Turner, but nobody made as consistent of an impact as Brandon Bass this past week.
After LA's bigs made Sullinger and Zeller's conditioning appear equivalent to Eddy Curry and Mo Vaughn, coach Stevens reinsterted Brandon Bass into the starting lineup to provide the first unit with additional spacing and mobility.
So far, so good.
Of course, this is nothing new as Bass had acted as Boston's starting four-man for the better part of the previous three years, but there is no question in anyone's mind that BB plays his best ball in a starting role. Bass has been playing excellent basketball over the past couple of weeks, making consistent contributions on both ends of the floor and undoubtedly leading the charge in terms of physicality. We all love how Bradley and Smart get into the ball, but Bass has really done an outstanding job switching and making the correct defensive rotations, while leading by example bodying up with the trees.
Bass put up a team high 15.7 points per game this week to go along with 7.0 rebounds and 1.7 steals per contest. Not only that, but the man some like to playfully refer to as "No Pass Bass" put together back-to-back nights with five assists. It's just one week, but 3.7 assists per game? Brandon Bass? I think it is safe to say that Brandon likes starting.
LOOKING AHEAD: The Celtics are riding high on the emotional roller coaster after earning a couple of wins, but they've still got their work cut out for them before they come back to Boston. The trip continues on Sunday evening when the Celtics visit the Golden State Warriors, currently the league's hottest club at 35-6 (.854), before another back-to-back wraps up in Utah the following night. Wednesday's matchup in Minnesota will act as the grand finale of the trip, but we've got some more west coast flavor on the way as the Celtics return home to host Houston on Friday night.
Can the Celtics go .500 or better on this trip before shipping up to Boston? All ping pong balls aside, let's keep this going!