The word "soft" was noticeably (and thankfully) missing from Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers' postgame assessment of his team's victory over the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday. His team dressed and played like men on Christmas at the Barclays Center. They hit the glass. They defended. They made the extra pass. They forced turnover after turnover. They were in total command for the final 2 ½ quarters.
Which, of course, leads to the obvious question: Where has this been all season? And, that, in turn, leads to an obvious follow-up: When will see it again?
Tuesday's 93-76 destruction of the Nets was a methodical dismantling of a team that, a month ago, manhandled the Celtics in Boston to the point of humiliation. It was after that game that Rivers called his team soft, a four-letter word of the most unflattering kind in the world of sports. That game featured a minor brouhaha that resulted in a two-game suspension for Rajon Rondo, and the feeling that maybe Rivers was right, that these Celtics aren't what we all thought they'd be.
They still aren't there, not with a 14-13 record and a slew of difficult games ahead. Rivers isn't going to go overboard after one win. But the Celtics unquestionably did more than just "show up" for this marquee matchup. They pretty much embarrassed the hosts, who had pretty much embarrassed the Celtics in their last meeting.
There was nothing not to like about this one from the Celtics' vantage point. The 76 points allowed marked the fewest of the season scored by a Boston opponent. The defense put up the kind of numbers we've been used to seeing over the past five years: In addition to the meager output, the Nets shot just 40.6 percent from the field and 35 percent from 3-point territory.
The Celtics also generated 25 points (more than one-fourth of their offense) off 20 Brooklyn turnovers. Boston turned it over 12 times. The Celtics had 25 assists, the Nets only 14. And, in keeping with a Christmas theme, here is the proverbial bow and ribbon on the present: The Celtics outrebounded the Nets, 41-36, had a 16-14 advantage in second-chance points and a 46-34 edge in points in the paint.
It was an across-the-board butt-whuppin' that also featured a little dust-up (again) between Kevin Garnett and Gerald Wallace. This one started when Wallace held onto Garnett's shorts a little too long for KG's liking. Both got technicals.
"I don't know where in America you can jack somebody's pants up, or shorts up. I don't know what the hell was going on," Garnett said in the Celtics' locker room after the game.
That was about the only mystifying moment for the Celtics. They were simply terrific. You can make the case that this was the Celtics' second-most impressive win of the season, given the quality of the opponent, the venue and the fact that the lads had dropped their past five road games and four of their past five overall.
"I think we're getting better," Rivers told reporters in Brooklyn. "I think we're very, very close to becoming a good team. But we're not yet. Our record tells us we're not. Until our record tells us we are, we're not. But we're playing better."
That may be true in part, but it has not translated into more victories. Just when you think the Celtics might be getting their collective act together, they go on the road and play three underwater games, losing by double-digits in all three. Or they lose at home to Milwaukee after nearly blowing a huge lead two nights earlier at home against Cleveland.
Even their most impressive win, the post-Thanksgiving 108-100 victory over Oklahoma City, was followed by a ho-hum, overtime win in Orlando, then, by the inexcusable beatdown at the hands of the Nets in Boston.
Rivers likes to use the word "trending" to describe his team. Usually, it's in a good way, not in the Lindsay Lohan-is-trending kind of way. His teams the past two seasons have been your proverbial late-bloomers -- and this one will have to follow the same course if it is to make any kind of run in the postseason.
But the facts are hard to ignore: The Celtics have played one-third of their schedule, and their longest winning streak is three games. They've played one game against the top three teams in the East. They've played two Western Conference opponents on the road and lost both times.
Their defense, the one we saw on display against the Nets on Christmas and the one the Celtics insist they need to succeed, has been missing most of the year. But, boy, was it there Tuesday. Forget the nice games off the bench by Jared Sullinger and Jeff Green. Forget Jason Terry finally making a shot. Forget Paul Pierce's 10 assists.
The one undeniable takeaway from this one was the suffocating performance of the defense. That's the Celtics team that can do damage and make a run. That's the Celtics team that must take the court against the Clippers on Thursday and the dramatically improved Warriors on Saturday.
We know it's there. We saw them man-up in a big way. Isn't it about time we saw it more than once a month?