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Infant C's: One-month checkup

12/16/2013

WALTHAM, Mass. -- The Boston Celtics know they're playing better basketball lately. A 7-4 record over their last 11 games, along with upticks in a number of key statistical categories confirm that. But Brad Stevens is particularly intrigued by Monday's visit from the Minnesota Timberwolves because it has the potential to tell Boston just how far it has come.

"I watched the Minnesota game from a month ago and I’m really looking forward to [Monday] night because I want to see if it can be an accurate gauge -- if we play well -- of how far we’ve come and how much we’ve improved in that time," said Stevens. "But you still have to play well to be able to accurately assess that. Hopefully we do."

The Celtics have danced with the Wolves twice already during the 2013-14 campaign (once in the preseason) and both times they got roughed up. Stevens was asked this weekend about whether seeing a team a second time can aid his preparation and quipped, "Well, we’ve seen Minnesota twice and the second time didn’t help. Hopefully the third time’s the charm."

The Celtics are in a weird spot. They are 11-14, which isn't seemingly much to jump up and down about, except in the Eastern Conference where it's good enough to lead the Atlantic Division and pencil Boston in for the fourth seed. With Boston in a transition year, some wondered if they'd win 11 games all season, let alone a mere 25 games in.

But even the team's fans have been conflicted about whether to root for Boston to continue to overachieve (playoffs?!), or hope the rest of the East progresses to the mean and restores a bit of normalcy (where an 11-14 squad would likely sit in the middle of the lottery squads).

Here's what we do know: The Celtics have a number of individual players performing exceptionally well (Jordan Crawford, Avery Bradley, Jared Sullinger headlining that list) and a hectic November schedule helped a young Boston team bond quicker than it might have otherwise. With Rajon Rondo returning to full-contact practice this past weekend and targeting a potential January return to game action, Boston must decided how it proceeds, particularly with only 67 days remaining in the trade shopping season.

Can Boston continue to overachieve? Just how much progress has it made since the start of the season? Monday's game against the Wolves can help answer some of those questions.

Here's a quick glance at Boston's statistical advancements in a handful of advanced stat categories:

How things have changed:

A look at where Boston ranked in key categories after their first meeting with the Timberwolves on Nov. 16, compared to where they rank for the 14 games since entering the rematch on Dec. 16:

Hone in on Boston's last eight games, a stretch in which the team is 5-3 overall, and the leaps are even more pronounced. The Celtics are eighth in offensive rating (106.3), fifth in defensive rating (99.1), and fourth in net rating (+7.1). But can they keep it going against a team like Minnesota?

The Wolves were 7-4 after topping Boston last month, but have gone 5-8 since then. Stevens implores you to look past a 12-12 record, particularly in the Western Conference.

"I think [Minnesota is] really good. I’m not going based on records or anything like that," said Stevens. "I’m going on the way I’ve felt twice in the building with them. And I think they’re really a good basketball team. [Kevin] Love is playing at an MVP level, continues to play at an MVP level. And [Kevin] Martin is an elite scorer, so you’ve got two guys right there that can do things that’s really unique. And then I think they’ve got great pieces around those guys. So I think they just provide a lot of challenges. They’re a matchup nightmare because of the two guys inside [Love and Nikola Pekovic], because of Martin. And then what’s hurt us in both of the games, the exhibition game and the last one, is their bench -- [Dante] Cunningham and [Robbie] Hummel and [J.J.] Barea and those guys have come off and really hurt us. That’s a skilled group, when you mention those three guys, specifically coming off of that bench."

OK, Coach, but the Wolves will see a developing Celtics team. Where has Boston improved most in the past month?

"I think we’ve improved in a lot of areas," said Stevens. "I think we’re a more diverse offensive team than we were a month ago and that’s really helped. And then, defensively, we’ve been able to tighten the screws at times. The most encouraging thing about Friday night’s [win over the New York Knicks] is I felt like we won it on the defensive end of the floor. Things got tough and we kind of got tough ourselves and got stops. That’s a positive. That hasn’t happened a whole lot."

It certainly didn't happen the last time out against Minnesota, when the Timberwolves built a 17-point second-quarter lead and kept Boston at arm's length much of the rest of the game (the lead sticking in double digits over the last 19 minutes of the game). It was one of the only games this season that Boston didn't at least give itself a chance to fight for in the fourth quarter (that and the next game in Houston; Boston's work lost of the season).

The Celtics seems to be playing better basketball at the moment. Monday is a chance to confirm it.