Soaring Celtics eclipse Rockets

BOSTON -- It might be rude to answer a question with a question, but Doc Rivers couldn't resist when asked about Boston's defense Friday against Houston's James Harden.

"Did he get 25 [points]?" asked Rivers.

He almost assuredly knew the answer to his own query. But Rivers smiled when reporters responded that Harden had been held to 24, ending a Rockets franchise record of 14 consecutive games with 25 or more.

"Then it was terrific," said Rivers. "It was great."

From the makers of Rajon Rondo's much-ballyhooed double-digit assist streak, the Celtics know single-category streaks are somewhat hollow. Unless you're talking about wins and losses.

With a defensive-minded 103-91 triumph over Harden and the Rockets, Boston extended its season-high winning streak to five games. The Celtics (19-17) are finally making their long-awaited climb up the standings, sitting four games back of the New York Knicks in the Atlantic Division and a mere five games behind the Eastern Conference-leading Miami Heat. Boston's defense, much-maligned as the team dropped as many as three games under .500 at the start of the month, has rebounded to familiar levels of opponent frustration.

Just ask Harden and his bottled Rockets.

"Listen, [Harden] did miss some good shots, but I just thought the pressure on the floor on him by Avery [Bradley] was really important for us," Rivers said after the Bradley-smothered Harden finished 9-of-19 shooting with five assists and six turnovers over 39:51.

"We talked about it and Rondo had to get up today, too, to guard [Jeremy] Lin. And both of those guys being on the other side of half-court [while pressing the ball], extended their pick-and-roll, extended their offense. And that's what we were thinking going into the game, and it played out that way," Rivers continued.

The Rockets can take a bit of solace in the fact that Boston has suffocated its past five opponents. The Celtics have limited the opposition to 84.4 points per game on 39.2 percent shooting over this five-game stretch, and have also forced 16.8 turnovers per game.

Dig deeper on the streak and you'll find Boston is allowing a minuscule 0.801 points per play overall, according to Synergy Sports data. When the Celtics force opponents into half-court sets, that number drops to 0.727 points per play and teams shoot 36.1 percent while turning the ball over 16.2 percent of the time.

By means of comparison, the Celtics were allowing 0.914 points per play overall on 44.7 percent shooting over the first 31 games of the season (forcing turnovers just 13.9 percent of the time).

This turnaround has been so severe, it's amazing the team doesn't have whiplash. The Celtics were outscored by a combined 79 points as part of a four-game losing streak that left them at 14-17 overall, but the team has rebounded to outscore opponents by 53 during this five-game stretch.

The impact of Bradley's return is undeniable, not only with his ability to harass the likes of Harden, but the trickle-down effect it had on Boston's entire roster. Teammates seem to have elevated their tenacity on the defensive end to match Bradley's effort, while he has allowed the second unit to mesh by settling back into his starting role.

"We've decided to defend as a group, full-time, and stay committed to it," said Rivers when asked to detail reasons for Boston's turnaround. "Avery's return has helped. The second unit now has a second unit -- [Jason Terry is] not in the first unit or Courtney [Lee]. [Bradley's return has] solidified who the second unit is, so now when we practice that group's always together. So I think there's a lot of little things to it."

Added Rivers: "For whatever reason, it's taken a while, but now they've bought in."

Nine days ago, Boston lacked an identity and didn't even have an idea where to start looking for it. Rivers noted the Celtics looked old and slow at times, their confidence sapped by losing -- and losing bad.

Now they are back to their defensive roots. An overhauled bench is playing up to its potential. And the wins are piling up for the first time this year.

Boston is trying not to get too high or too low even amid this successful run. But the Celtics finally have their identity back, and it's fueling inspired play.

"Doc's team, since I've been here, has always been a defensive-minded team," said Kevin Garnett. "Every guy in here knowing his role, going out, perfecting his role. Scorers score, pickers pick, bigs rebound and protect, so on and so on. That's who we are, and that's what Doc's team has always been since I've been here, and that's what we envisioned.

"We've got people and guys buying into their roles; it's starting to all come together. But consistency, man. I don't want to sit here and say all this and next game we come out and look like s---. So, you know, we're trying to actually continue to ride this momentum."

With three more home games looming next week, the Celtics have potential to really make their move.

"I feel like we're building," said captain Paul Pierce. "We're getting better and better as the season goes on, taking it one game at a time in this home stretch. Hopefully we can just keep it going."

Harden couldn't keep it going and his mild offensive night speaks volumes about the improvements these Celtics have made.