For the Celtics, ugly’s not so bad

For the Celtics, ugly’s not so bad
March 6, 2013, 11:15 am
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The Celtics won an ugly one last night in Philly. In fact, other than Avery Bradley’s offensive awakening, the continued effectiveness of Boston’s zone defense, the spark from Jordan Crawford, Paul Pierce’s all around effort, Jeff Green 14th double-figure performance in the last 17 games and — hey, wait a second . . .
 
Maybe it wasn’t so bad.
 
Especially since we all know that if this game had been played a few months back, an ugly win would’ve no doubt turned into an ugly loss — just like it did on December 7.
 
But these are the new Celtics. That’s not to say anything about the individuals on the active (or inactive) roster, because this team isn’t about individuals. They’re just a group of guys who’ve collectively scraped together the remnants of a once-lost season and brought a sense of pride and optimism back to Celtics basketball.
 
When Rajon Rondo and Jared Sullinger went down, the sense was that Boston might be headed to the lottery. At the very least, that they’d struggle to sneak into to one of the last few playoff spots and maybe even draw a first round beheading at the hands of the Heat.
 
Today, the Celtics are no longer in any danger of spending the April on the golf course, by the pool, or jogging on the shores of Malibu. They’re now 12-4 since Rondo went down; they’ve turned a 20-23 record into a 32-27 mark. Forget the lottery, the C’s have a nine-game lead on the ninth seed Sixers. More importantly, they’re only a game back of Atlanta for the sixth seed (and an ideal first round match-up with Knicks); they’re only a game-and-a-half back of Chicago for home court in the first round; they’re . . . only five games back of the Knicks for the Atlantic Division crown!! OK, let’s not get crazy. But at this point, that Atlantic title is much more realistic than Tommy Heinsohn sitting at a makeshift desk labeled Celtics this spring, alongside Brian Colangelo and Dan Gilbert’s son.
 
But now that the Celtics are rather firmly in the playoff picture, the question is: Can we expect anything more?
 
Personally, and I admit there might be some delusion here, I still like the C’s against any team other than Miami. Of course, it won’t be easy. There’s not a team in the East that won’t give the Celtics all they can handle. But gun to my head — Celtics vs. any of the other six Eastern Conference playoff teams — give me Boston in six or seven. Then I’ll take the Heat in six.
 
But either way, we should find out more tonight, as the Celtics finish up a back-to-back on the road in Indiana.
 
At this point, in terms of both standings and conventional wisdom, the Pacers are the second best team in the conference.
 
They have the size (Roy Hibbert), strength (David West), versatility and athleticism (Paul George) and depth (George Hill, Lance Stephenson, Tyler Hansborough, etc.) to give Boston fits; to give anyone fits. That helps explain why the Pacers have won 12 of their last 15 games (with two of their three losses coming in OT).
 
If the Celtics take care of business tonight, there will be no question that they can play with anyone, and that they’ll officially re-claim their title as the Eastern Conference team that no one wants to draw in the playoffs. If they lose?
 
Eh, there will be enough reasonable excuses to soften the blow — mainly, that the C’s played last night in Philly, while Indiana hasn’t played since Saturday. That’s a big deal. Honestly, for all we know, Doc Rivers might even take a page out of Gregg Popovich's book and keep Pierce and KG on the bench.
 
And that might not be the worst idea. After all, they’ve earned the rest. They’ve earned the ability to tinker with the schedule and strategically take their foot off the pedal. The Celtics have gone from the brink of the lottery to heart of the Eastern Conference playoffs race. They’ve done it by winning pretty, by winning ugly, and above all else, by just playing as team.
 
And they still have realistic dreams of doing so deep into Spring.
 
Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter @rich_levine.