The Boston Celtics were competitive in their first four games of the season, but watched the opposition motor away at the end of each. So even while some fans started to wonder if Boston's first win of the season might come before the new calendar year, first-year coach Brad Stevens swore his team was only a couple small tweaks away from having a much more respectable record.
And therein lies the secret to Boston's little two-game winning streak over the past three days: late fourth-quarter execution. The Celtics haven't been perfect -- far from it -- but they clearly learned from those four losses and have found a way to make enough plays to win the past two games.
With that in mind, here are five plays in particular from the final minutes of Friday's 91-89 triumph over the Orlando Magic that deserve some additional attention:
STEEZ PLEASES: Stevens called Jordan Crawford a "calming presence" during the fourth quarter of Wednesday's win over the Utah Jazz. On Friday, Crawford's late-game actions left Stevens suggesting he was "the most excited I've been since I moved to Boston." The play that fired him up? A timeout. With the Celtics up 5 with 4 minutes to play, Jameer Nelson missed a 3-pointer and Avery Bradley stripped rookie Victor Oladipo soon after he hauled in the offensive rebound. The ball trickled loose in front of the Boston bench and Crawford crashed to the floor to corral it -- with both he and Stevens adamantly calling timeout the moment he gained possession. Boston ultimately squandered the offensive possession coming out of the stoppage, but it was a heads-up play to simply ensure the Celtics kept the ball at a crucial juncture.
Analysis: The Celtics are 2-0 since Crawford entered the starting backcourt. Boston's offense gets a jolt with him on the floor, but most importantly, the turnover percentage has plummeted (a mere 12.2 percent when he's on the floor the past two games). In fact, plays like this show that Crawford is saving possessions instead of giving them away.
GREEN MAKES A CAMEO: Boston was up 2 with under 3 minutes to go when Jeff Green -- invisible for much of the night, outside of two loud dunks -- swooped in on the baseline to tip home a Bass miss in traffic. Consider this: Before Friday's game, Green was a mere 2-of-14 shooting (14.3 percent) over 35 fourth-quarter minutes in Boston's first five games. It was practically Green's only contribution in six fourth-quarter minutes Friday, but it came at a key moment.
Analysis: The Celtics need more from Green in the fourth quarter. Sure, he was benched during the fourth frame in one game, but the fact that -- before this hoop -- you'd have to go back to the fourth quarter of the season opener (SEASON OPENER?!) to find his last fourth-quarter bucket is unacceptable.
BLOCKED BY BASS: Despite emerging as a backline defensive anchor this season, Brandon Bass lacks the size to be a pure shot-blocker. That didn't stop him from making a nice play against Nelson. Bass -- a power forward -- picked up Nelson -- a point guard -- on a switch in the pick-and-roll and stayed with Nelson as he zig-zagged in the lane, then stuffed a floater attempt. Bradley collected the ball and fed Crawford going the other way for an 86-80 lead.
Analysis: We chronicled Bass' defensive success on Thursday and he continues to come up big on that side of the ball. Foul trouble left Bass playing a team-high 37 minutes and he didn't look the least bit fatigued down the stretch while making some key plays.
OLYNYK'S CLUTCH SHOT: The Magic were back within 2 with 1:38 to play. Boston's initial attempt to generate a decent scoring chance went nowhere, so much so that the team called timeout with 11 seconds on the shot clock. Coming out of that stoppage, Crawford fed rookie Kelly Olynyk -- who didn't have a second-half field goal to that point -- for a 12-foot jumper (and an 88-84 cushion).
Analysis: Olynyk was only 4-of-13 shooting, but he played with great intensity, highlighted by a first-half sequence in which he generated three consecutive offensive rebounds trying to tip home his own misses. Olynyk didn't have much reason to be confident in his shot late in the game, but he stepped up to hit a big-time basket.
IT'S A TRAP: Maybe the most encouraging sequence came after Orlando crawled within 1 with 26 seconds to play. Coming out of a timeout that advanced the ball, Crawford took the inbounds pass above the top of arc and was swarmed by two defenders. He dribbled hard to the right baseline as the Magic pursued before calling a second timeout with 20.8 seconds to go. Olynyk got the inbound pass this time around and was blitzed as well. Even with Maurice Harkless ripping at the ball, Olynyk calmly pivoted away from pressure and eventually got the ball to Bass. This time, Harkless and 7-footer Nikola Vucevic trapped Bass near the right corner, but Bass had just enough room on the baseline to put the ball on the floor and escape by driving hard at the hoop, getting fouled while going up strong. The Celtics should have turned the ball over at some point during that sequence -- and most certainly would have in games earlier this season -- but instead they avoided three traps and generated points in the end.
Analysis: Boston turned the ball over only 11 times Friday night and can take great pride in excellent ball security. An area that's been the Celtics' biggest weakness over the first five games turned out to be one of the reasons they won in Orlando. Managing high-pressure situations like those late-game traps shows that Boston players are learning from their losses and making progress already.