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Sunday, January 6, 2013
A blueprint for success

By Chris Forsberg

Boston Celtics
Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry exit Atlanta on a high note.
Not all wins are created equal.

There's a chance we'll look back at season's end and the Celtics' come-from-behind triumph over the Hawks on Saturday night in Atlanta will be just another win. But, at least for the moment, you can't help but suspect this one will mean a little more.

The Celtics needed this one in a bad way (even if they didn't exactly show it with their effort level in the first half). Boston's entire season has been dogged by inconsistency, and the Celtics were in danger of, yet again, spoiling a solid effort by being unable to carry over the positives to the next game.

Boston put together its finest defensive effort of the season Friday night against the Pacers. Yes, Indiana aided that cause with its anemic offense, but the Celtics -- having just reassembled their preferred starting five with the recent return of Avery Bradley and re-elevation of Brandon Bass to the first unit -- showcased a familiar brand of lockdown defense and limited Indiana to a mere 31.8 percent shooting overall.

It wouldn't have mattered all that much if Boston had turned around and gotten run out of Philips Arena. Which nearly happened. The Celtics offered virtually no resistance as Lou Williams and Jeff Teague attacked the basket at will in the first half Saturday.

Then Doc Rivers went into his locker room at halftime, and calmly reminded Bradley and backcourt mate Rajon Rondo that they have the potential to be a dominant defensive duo when they are committed to being such, and the Celtics promptly dominated the second half. Rondo, who finished with his 25th career triple-double, seemingly took his effort at both ends of the court to another level, and that aided a 30-point swing (Boston turning a 19-point deficit into as much as an 11-point lead).

The Celtics now have won two in a row. That shouldn't be anything to celebrate for a team with championship desires, but you gotta start somewhere. Boston hadn't put together consecutive wins since Dec. 8-12, and now it has a chance to match a season-high three-game winning streak (Nov. 10-14) when it visits the Atlantic Division-leading New York Knicks on Monday at Madison Square Garden.

You can't help but wonder whether this is a stretch in which the Celtics finally put it together. A loss Saturday would have sent them back to square one again. Instead, Boston put its best all-around defensive effort and its best comeback effort together on back-to-back nights. There was an increased swagger in the Celtics' voices and body language after Friday's win, and Saturday had to put even more strut in their step.

Rivers talked about how Friday's win was a "substance" win. The Celtics previously had a season full of empty wins, the type in which they would do just enough to get the victory, but they rarely could extend that quality play the next time out.

Rivers noted how Friday's game gave Boston a blueprint. With Bradley and Bass alongside the veteran core of Rondo, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, the Celtics played 48 minutes of inspired defense against the Pacers and emerged with a 20-point victory. Boston clearly didn't follow that road map Saturday in Atlanta, but what it got was another blueprint -- one that shows how this team can endure some adversity and still lean on its core principles to rally back.

That's a resolve-filled blueprint Boston desperately needed. The Celtics put together a solid effort Christmas Day in Brooklyn, then went out west where they encountered first-half turbulence in three California games against the Clippers, Warriors and Kings. The Celtics never could rally out of those early double-digit deficits and seemed content to get their tails kicked, losing all three games by 18 points or more.

The Celtics were not content to let Atlanta stomp them.

Boston had worked too hard the night before to just roll over. Maybe the Celtics were simply sick of being written off. Boston sure seemed like a team with a little something to prove.

The Celtics (16-17) are not out of the woods yet. They are still a sub-.500 team in need of a sustained stretch of quality play. They might still hit some bumps in the road, but you have to like how things are laid out for them. After Monday's battle with the Knicks, Boston opens a five-game homestand that includes visits from the lottery-bound likes of Phoenix, Charlotte and New Orleans. There's a real chance here to make something of this stretch, particularly with 13 of the next 18 games at home leading up to the All-Star break.

But Boston's outlook wouldn't have been nearly as cheery without Saturday's win. That's two substance wins in a row and a rare glimmer of potential for this team. The Celtics can't relent, but if they follow their blueprints, there's a very good chance we'll look back and view Saturday's come-from-behind triumph as much more than just another win.