It’s been 25 days.
The night was Jan. 20, 2013 and the Celtics had just been blown away by the lowly Detroit Pistons to fall to 20-20 on the season.
Doc Rivers stood in front of the cameras after the game and did something he’s never really done before: threaten to make drastic changes.
“I think this team wants everything easy,” he told reporters. “They want the easy way out. They want to win easy. And I told them the only way you’re going to win easy is you’re going to have to play hard. The harder you play, the easier the games become. We’re taking the wrong approach. I’ve got to either find the right combination, the right guys, or we’re going to get some guys out of here. It’s the bottom line.”
The Celtics went on to lose three more games after that night — including an epic choke job in Atlanta. They were dead; listless. The butt of all NBA jokes.
Then Rajon Rondo went down. Jared Sullinger was next. Most recently, Leandro Barbosa was lost for the season, too.
Season-ending injuries aren’t usually the recipe for success, and that isn’t the case this time either, but it’s clear that those final blows forced the Celtics to do something they hadn’t done up to that point in the season: dig deep enough to win.
The Celtics go into the All-Star break winners of eight of their last nine. No team in the Eastern Conference has a better record over those last nine games than the C’s.
Boston is 28-24, a far cry from last year’s team at the break (15-17, and losers of seven of their last eight).
“I think it’s been the mental focus; the attitude,” Jason Terry said after the C’s gritty 71-69 win over the Bulls. “Guys willing to buy in and accept their roles and accept Doc’s coaching and accept that there is a way for us to win. Doc has a formula. If you go out and prepare, and execute what he’s laying out – the blueprint – we’re going to be in ballgames and have an opportunity to win every single night.”
With last month’s record staring them in the face, and players suddenly dropping like flies, the C’s had no choice but to trust one another.
“We found a rhythm,” Courtney Lee said of the resurgence. “We started finding what works for us with the guys that are out there. Being tired of losing definitely would make something click. I just think guys were tired of losing and everybody just had to trust each other and trust the system.”
It was apparent in the locker room that players were fed up with the losses piling up. Answers were short — or nonexistent — after the games.
But Terry, being the veteran that he is, called a loss back then (sorry, they’re all too close to remember which one it was) part of the journey. He didn’t have any reason at that point to believe things would turn around other than belief itself.
“Because you have a championship team,” he said when asked why he felt that way back then. “When you have three of four guys that have won a championship and knows what it takes, that’s something that’s in you. That’s something that’s never going to leave, and it’s going to come out in the toughest of times. That will carry you. When you’re body doesn’t want to go anymore, that mental toughness deep inside is what’s going to carry you through.”
The C’s didn’t know at the time of their game against the Heat that Rondo would be out for the year, but after finding out, they rattled off seven more wins in eight games. You’d be hard-pressed to find even the greenest of Green Teamers who dreamed up that scenario.
Consider that stretch the turning point.
“I just think there comes a time in every season where there’s a turning point where you can go right or go left,” Terry said. “I think we chose to go right. Circumstances may be a part of that, but I wouldn’t think that if those two or three guys were healthy, I still think we were going to hit that switch and it was going to happen for us.”
So Doc Rivers walked in to Boston’s press conference room on February 13, 2013, stood in front of the cameras, cracked a joke, and then answered questions on how his team pulled off a win against one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference.
So, Doc, what’s it say about this team winning eight of nine games like they have?
“Just tremendous heart,” he said. “I mean, you’ve got to love this team. You really do. This group of guys. And we just keep talking about we choose to live. We’re not going to just roll over. And it’s very important for our guys to understand. You know I told them, ‘Kevin may not play and we have to win the game.’ And we have to have that mindset. We have enough guys and there’s no help coming. This is who we are.”
And so, the Celtics will continue to scratch and claw their way to victory.
It’s the bottom line.
Follow Metro Boston Celtics beat writer Jimmy Toscano on Twitter: @Jimmy_Toscano
Celtics beat Bulls, 71-69
In one of the uglier NBA games of the 2012-13 season, or any season for that matter, the Celtics edged the Bulls, 71-69, at TD Garden Wednesday night.
Boston (28-24) scored just eight point in the third quarter but was still able to come away with the victory. Kevin Garnett led the C’s with 12 points and 11 rebounds.