BOSTON — Jared Sullinger is a neophyte to the pro basketball business, but the rookie forward for the Celtics has already learned that the approach to wins and losses is a bit different in the NBA than college. At Ohio State, dropping just a single game could lead to wind sprints, post-midnight practices and agonizing over how the defeat would affect the Buckeyes’ RPI.
The Celtics have lost nine games this season, and so far panic has been the farthest thing from their minds. When they pounced on the Philadelphia 76ers for a 92-79 victory on Saturday, alternating a loss with a win for the third time in less than two weeks, the players talked about how they are righting their early-season errors slowly, but surely.
“We’re still on that curve,” Sullinger said. “We’re doing a lot of things well, but we’re not doing it all the time. We’re not putting a 48-minute game in all the time as a team, but we’re coming close to doing that.”
The Celtics (11-9) have won consecutive games only once since Nov. 14. Even that two-game win streak against the Thunder and Magic followed three losses in four games to the formidable Spurs, the rising Nets and the lowly Pistons. The only thing the Celtics have done consistently is be inconsistent.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers took his players to task for their uneven play last week when he accused them of being soft, but he has been quietly encouraged by his team’s play in the five games since then. The Celtics lost close games to the Bucks and Sixers, whose young legs are destined to give the veteran Celtics a hard time, but jumped on the wayward Blazers, strangled the injury-plagued Timberwolves and outworked the fatigued Sixers on the second night of a home-and-home set.
“We can’t string a streak of wins together yet, but you can feel us playing better,” Rivers said. “You feel like it’s coming, just nothing’s happened. We’re treading water, but I like our trend. I like where we’re going.”
As long as the jerseys are green, Rivers is in the driver’s seat and either Paul Pierce or Kevin Garnett is lacing up a pair of sneakers, the concern over any down stretch for the Celtics is going to be muted. The track record for the franchise, the coach and the future Hall of Fame players is too long for them to be bothered by a slow start or a challenging portion of the schedule. Whereas playing games on consecutive nights against the same opponent flustered the Sixers, it was nothing that the seasoned Celtics had not seen before.
Garnett demonstrated his cool under fire late in the third quarter. The Sixers had whittled a 21-point lead down to eight points while he sat on the bench, drawing a 20-second timeout by Rivers to get Garnett back on the floor with 1:05 left in the quarter. The 36-year-old big man responded with a fall-away, and-one jump shot, then tossed a pass over his shoulder to Green for a layup. In those 65 seconds, Garnett helped extend Boston’s lead back to a comfortable 13 points heading into the final quarter. He may not have recorded a rebound in the game — although he claimed afterward that the scorekeeper must have messed up — but Garnett’s impact on the game was about more than scoring 19 points or failing to grab a board.
“The difference between us right now and a team like the Celtics [is] the Celtics have a mental toughness borne through championships and night-in, night-out being a team that has to come to play every single night because teams come with their best efforts,” Sixers coach Doug Collins said. “They have an incredible approach, mentally. Kevin Garnett, I guarantee his legs weren’t the freshest out there, but his mind was the sharpest, and that’s what we’ve got to build. But you only do it through tough competition. Boston, they teach you what the ‘next level’ is all about.”
The Celtics admit they are far from achieving that “next level” themselves. No team treading water, just two games above .500, can claim to be anything but average. But after 20 games they continue to tease with glimpses of what they can be, and those glimpses are becoming more frequent.