BOSTON — Gerald Wallace has never been out of the first round of the playoffs, but that does not mean he is content with small victories. The always-honest Celtics forward liked what he saw in his team’s win over the Magic on Monday, but he didn’t have much reaction when told he now played for a first-place club.
“Where are we in the Eastern Conference?” Wallace asked after he was informed the Celtics, at 4-4, shared first place in the Atlantic Division with the Philadelphia 76ers. “That’s more important. I don’t care about the division.”
The Celtics’ 120-105 win over the Magic, coupled with the Sixers’ loss to the Spurs, knotted the two surprising squads atop the standings, but the Celtics and Sixers are headed in opposite directions. Since winning their first three games, the Sixers have dropped four of their last five. Meanwhile, the Celtics have won four straight and have a winnable home game against the Bobcats upcoming Wednesday.
Wallace is not letting his guard down, however. He has not forgotten how those first four games ended in heartbreaking fashion, and he knows not every win will be a blowout like Monday’s game.
“Anybody could easily say we could be 0-8 or 8-0,” Wallace said. “There’s some games we gave away that we lost. The main thing is, we felt like we gave the first four games away. But those were a learning experience for us and we’ve gotten better and better. We only seem to keep getting better and better. That’s the main thing, to continue to improve.”
Ever since Jordan Crawford took on most of the point guard duties, Avery Bradley has been a changed player. He has looked more confident with his jump shot, more decisive with his backdoor cuts and more active on defense, which is crucial to his worth to the Celtics and as an NBA player.
Bradley’s jump shot was working Monday, when he led the Celtics with 24 points, often by finding soft spots in Orlando’s defense for open 15-footers. But Bradley owed just as much of his performance to Crawford and the rest of his teammates setting him up on the off-ball cuts Bradley made so effective alongside Rajon Rondo.
“I think that’s my game, period, at either position,” Bradley said. “That’s one of my strengths, backdoor cutting and doing all the little things. That’s me.”
Bradley, who insists he can play point guard despite evidence to the contrary, would not admit that the change in backcourt responsibilities had anything to do with his effort on Monday. His stat line told a different story, though. Along with those 24 points, Bradley recorded exactly zero rebounds and zero assists. He made no other offensive contribution to the box score other than his scoring.
That’s the mark of a shooting guard who is comfortable looking for his own shots, not a point guard or even a combo guard preoccupied with creating looks for his teammates. Jeff Green was among a few Celtics players who noticed the difference, even if Bradley would not admit it.
“He’s being more and more aggressive on the offensive end,” Green said. “When you’re at the point guard, that’s a tough position, especially when you’re not a true point guard. He was trying to figure out ways to get everybody involved except for himself. Now he doesn’t have to think that much. He’s just out there playing. He’s just being aggressive.”
Brad Stevens may have to start penalizing players for not shooting enough.
It’s been a recurring theme of the young season that Kelly Olynyk and Wallace, in particular, seem reluctant to shoot. In Olynyk’s case, it has even gotten him into trouble after his team worked hard to generate an open shot for the rookie.
The most notable example came toward the end of Saturday’s game against the Heat, when Olynyk had an open jump shot but pump-faked and tried to lean into his defender to draw a foul. Against the Magic on Monday, Olynyk twice turned down wide-open 3-pointers only to dribble into tougher, 2-point shots.
Olynyk’s hesitance is understandable for a tentative rookie and Wallace’s unselfishness is admirable given that many veterans in his position would look to pad their stats. But the Celtics will need both players to actually take open shots when they come, or else scheming and drilling ways to create those shots will have been wasted.
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