Every game from here on out is a grind game. That's what Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers told his players prior to the start of the second half of the season, and so far, we've seen nothing to disprove this notion. The Celtics have been grinding along in their first five games after the All-Star break alright, but so far they haven't dropped one.
Boston's five wins have come against all sorts of opponents: rebuilding teams (Cleveland Cavaliers), scrappers (Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets), basement dwellers (New Jersey Nets), rejuvenated contenders (New York Knicks). The Celtics have only won by an average margin of 6.2 points (101.4 - 95.2).
They aren't exactly pretty wins, but the Celtics will take them. Remember, this is a team that had lost five straight on two occasions and came dangerously close to inhabiting the basement of the Atlantic Division. This was a team that would post consecutive big wins against the contending Orlando Magic and then drop two straight to the Detroit Pistons. They were all over the map.
But something clicked at the break and the Celtics are winning once again. It doesn't matter if they're close wins, either. You know the cliche; a win is a win.
"Well we understand the urgency, especially at this point in the season, after the All-Star Break," said Celtics captain Paul Pierce, who had a game-high 30 points in Tuesday's 97-92 overtime win against Houston. "Right now it's that stretch run and we understand it. We understand that we need to take care of it at home, we understand that we have a big road trip coming up that's not going to be easy, so we can't just give away games right now."
As one Celtics reporter put it on Twitter, their game on Tuesday was a perfect microcosm of their season. An early Celtics deficit was erased by a strong second quarter. Then another sloppy quarter, followed by an up-and-down fourth and a way-too-close overtime period.
The ups, the downs...they were all put on display at TD Garden on Tuesday.
"It was definitely a strange game, it was a battle of wills," Pierce said. "One team wanted it one quarter, another team wanted it another quarter. It was just kind of like a seesaw battle. You know, we make a run, they make a run. Nobody could really just put the other team away. It was just one of those games where once it got to the fourth quarter, we picked up our intensity, we played with more of a sense of urgency, got more life out of ourselves and into the building, we were able to take control.
"It was unfortunate we couldn't win it in regulation, but sometimes the balls bounces that way. There are going to be all types of ways you're going to win, and it wasn't pretty but we got it done."
The way these guys were playing at one point earlier in the season, the idea of moving into first place in the Atlantic Division seemed laughable. Don't look now, but the Celtics are one game behind the first-place Philadelphia 76ers, the very same team they will meet on the back end of a back-to-back on Wednesday night in Philly.
For fans, the idea of moving into first is certainly an exciting one. It should be for the players, too, considering that a division championship would guarantee the Celtics a top-four spot in the Eastern Conference, which means that they wouldn't have to face the Miami Heat or Chicago Bulls in the opening round of the playoffs.
Right now, though, Rivers is more concerned with the quality of basketball his team has been playing than he is with the standings.
"Well, I think that's great," the Celtics' coach said about the chance to move up in the standings. "What do you want me to say? I mean, we're just hanging in there, that's what we're doing. We're starting to play good basketball and we're starting to win basketball games when we don't play good basketball, and that may be more important."
Pierce doesn't see it in quite the same light, noting that Philadelphia is an obstacle that this team will have to overcome in order to reach its goals.
"Well we've been playing well as of late, this is definitely a division rival that we are going to have to overtake and seeing as it's going to be important going into the playoffs," Pierce said. "If we win our division I think we will get a top four seed regardless. So these are important games."
Now, here's where that whole grind aspect of the season comes back into play. Coming off two straight overtime games, the Celtics are undoubtedly tired. The Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen have played a lot of minutes in the past two games (between the three, they have played a total of 252 minutes in those two wins), a concerning fact considering the age of the championship trio.
Rajon Rondo, for one, doesn't think it is an issue.
"It's not exhausting, it's what we are paid to do," said Rondo. "It's our job, it's basketball. That's why we have 15 guys on the roster. If guys are lagging, Doc can do the substitution and put the other guys in."
Kevin Garnett, who has seemed to display the most wear and tear of any member of the Big Three during his time in Boston, played 41 and 38 minutes respectively in the last two games. Coming into Wednesday's showdown in Philly, you would have to think that Rivers is concerned about Garnett's minutes. Or maybe not.
"That's a lot, obviously overtime skews it," Rivers said of Garnett's minutes Tuesday. "But I'm not worried about his minutes. He's going to have some minutes, days, where he plays 40 minutes. I don't like them back-to-back. He's also going to have some 25-minute games. So at the end of the season it'll still say 30. How we get to it is how we get to it. Obviously if I had my pick, today would not have been a 40-minute night. And you know what hurt us is Brandon (Bass) gets hurt at the beginning of the game so we're searching; Chris (Wilcox) gets into foul trouble. So now we have to extend Kevin's minutes."
Ready (and rested) or not, the Celtics have their work cut out for them, as they will embark upon an eight-game West coast road trip that may very well define where they finish the season in the standings.
Of course, it would behoove them to do well on that stretch. But with this team, it seems as if there never is a definitive answer. After all, they have made a name for themselves by winning quite a few grind games in a row over the years. Who is to say they can't do it once again in April and May?