Just over a month ago, the Celtics took the floor at the Pepsi Center in Denver at the tail end of a five-game Western road trip, looking to punch their tickets home on a positive note. They were coming off three straight wins over Sacramento, L.A. and Portland, and optimism was running high back home in Boston.
The C's came out flat on that Sunday afternoon, Feb. 21, watching as Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups tore them apart to the tune of 37 points in the first quarter and an eventual 114-105 victory. For the Nuggets, it was a statement win that let the rest of the West know they could still hang with the big boys. For the Celtics, it was a step back.
On Wednesday night in Boston, the Celtics corrected their mistakes from the first time out. And then some.
"Completely different team," Doc Rivers said after the C's dismantled Denver 113-99 at TD Garden on Wednesday night. "Not only Paul [Pierce] — I thought defensively, overall, we were just so much better, we were so much more active. And then Paul obviously was different. You know, all of them are different. They're better, they're healthier. They're feeling better."
What a difference a month makes. The C's were 35-19 on Feb. 21 after their loss in Denver — they've since won 11 of their last 17, including quality wins over playoff-bound opponents like Charlotte, Dallas, Utah and now the Nuggets. It's been a solid month for a Celtics team that a month ago doubted whether it could seriously contend in the East.
The resurgence has started with Paul Pierce. The reigning Player of the Week in the Eastern Conference continued his torrid run on Wednesday night, dominating once again in the first quarter with 14 of the Celtics' 30 points.
When Pierce plays well, the whole team elevates its game. Everything flows when the captain emerges as the confident scoring machine he's capable of being. A month ago, we didn't see that side of Pierce too often, but he's come out of hiding now. Perhaps for good.
"The Paul Pierce that you saw out in Denver wasn't the Paul Pierce that usually shows up to play," Pierce said Wednesday night. "I've battled through a lot of injuries this year, and right now, I'm as healthy as I've been all year. This is our time to start playing well. It's coming from a number of us, not only me, Kevin [Garnett], [Rajon] Rondo, Ray [Allen]. It's that time of the year for all of us to start picking up our play."
Pierce has played well enough over the past week and a half to talk all of Boston down off the ledge. There's hope in town again — these Celtics look as much like the 2008 edition as they have in a long time, and that's got to send shivers down the spine of everyone else in the NBA.
You ask Rivers, and he's not saying much about making a statement or sending a message. He's just gradually getting his team into gear.
"It's just good to get wins," the coach said. "But it's really important for us to get healthy and stay healthy — and get our timing and rhythm and just keep getting better. That's the way I look at it. … Obviously the wins are great because we can get some momentum at home. But I'm just really focused on getting to the middle of April and being at our best.”
"That's the idea," Pierce concurred. "This is the longest home stand we've had this year. It's good to finally be home for two weeks ending out the season. Hopefully we can just start playing well in this building and gather some momentum going into the playoffs. This is that time of the year, this is the stretch run, going into those last couple of laps. This is where you really want to be playing well going into the playoffs."
With Wednesday night's win, the Celtics proved that they are. The Celtics of today look focused, confident and composed — much more so than a month ago. They let the Nuggets know it.