BOSTON — The Celtics started Friday’s game like every other since their post-Christmas hangover began. They missed makeable shots, fired up 3-pointers early in the shot clock and looked all-around lost on offense.
A funny thing happened when they looked up at the scoreboard at the end of the first quarter, though. Despite shooting 29 percent from the field and committing as many fouls as assists, they trailed by only one point to the Indiana Pacers, who came to the TD Garden with the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference.
With that putrid start behind them, the Celtics shot 60 percent in the second quarter and never allowed the Pacers to hit more than 33 percent of their shots in dousing Indiana 94-75 to snap a four-game losing streak. Avery Bradley, who missed eight of the 11 shots he took but played hounding defense, was labeled the game’s most valuable player by Celtics coach Doc Rivers, who also called the first quarter brickfest “the biggest stretch in the game.”
This was the type of ugly victory that has personified the contending Celtics teams of recent years, and one that they have not been able to boast about in a while. Now all they need to do is repeat it a few dozen times between now and mid-April.
“We didn’t start off shooting the ball particularly well,” Paul Pierce said. “Sometimes the shots aren’t going to fall, but we played with the necessarily intensity that we need to play with every night. We played defense, we got deflections, we covered for one another, we rebounded the ball well, and that’s got to be us night-in and night-out.”
Like Pierce, none of the Celtics tried to frame Friday’s win as a turning point or as proof that their disastrous play of late was a fluke. Kevin Garnett said the physical performance “was not some type of foreplay,” and Rajon Rondo lauded the defensive effort while insisting it had to continue, starting Saturday night in Atlanta.
If Bradley earned the MVP nod, then Jared Sullinger and Courtney Lee should share his hardware. The rookie forward performed more yeoman work on the glass while fouling out, yet again, after a series of eyebrow-raising calls. Lee enabled the Celtics to maintain their tough perimeter defense when Bradley took a rest, helping to force 18 turnovers and convert numerous fast break opportunities. Even Jason Collins, coming off the bench for the first time since Dec. 18, clocked in for 15 minutes of banging with Roy Hibbert, who was held to seven points.
Yet the work is far from finished for the Celtics, who stand at 15-17 with two tough road games against East foes coming up. The Celtics face the Hawks after a quick turnaround and have just one day off before taking on the Knicks on Monday at Madison Square Garden. The inability to string together several wins — they have not won consecutive games since Dec. 12 and have only one win streak of more than two games all season — continues to bother the Celtics. One win over an opponent missing two of its top players (forward Danny Granger and guard George Hill) was not enough to undo a month of frustration.
“This wasn’t an empty win,” Rivers said. “It was a substance win, but it doesn’t mean anything, honestly, because you’ve got to keep doing it. But it is a substance win, in that I keep saying we need a blueprint on how we should play, and I don’t know if this wasn’t the best one, but then you’ve got to do it again [Saturday] and then the next one. It’s a first step.”
Consider the first step taken. If they do not immediately fall flat on their faces on Saturday, the Celtics may be able to say they are making real progress.