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Fast starts fueling Celtics

NEW YORK -- Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens admits that his to-do list is long and every time he crosses something off it, something else gets added. That's just the way it goes in the NBA.

But over the last eight games, the Celtics have done a rather remarkable job of improving some of their most glaring areas of need and, maybe not surprisingly, they've posted a 6-2 mark during that span because of those advancements.

Take, for instance, defensive rebounding. Boston ranked 27th in the league through 14 games in that category at 71.4 percent. Over the past eight games, the Celtics rank 10th in the league at 76.4 percent (read more on the improvements in defensive rebounding HERE). And then there are the turnovers. Boston ranked 26th in the league in turnover percentage, giving the ball away on 17.9 percent of possessions through the first 14 games. Boston's number has dipped to 15.7 percent over the last eight games, ranking 18th in the league in that span (read more on the improvements in turnovers HERE).

But one of the lingering issues had been Boston's terrible first-quarter play. It felt as though Boston routinely was digging itself early holes and this young team struggled to claw its way back into games. Through the first 14 games, Boston averaged only 23.6 first-quarter points per game, which ranked 21st in the league, but their quarter differential of minus-2.2 ranked 24th in the league. It doesn't sound like a lot, but Boston rarely gave itself a chance to play with a lead.

That's changed over the last eight games. Boston is now averaging 26 first-quarter points per game (10th best in the league in that span) and its plus-7.3 quarter differential is best in the NBA through Sunday's games.

During Friday's win over the Denver Nuggets, Boston scored the game's first 14 points and led by 24 after the first quarter, which allowed the Celtics to fend off the Nuggets' second-half surges. On Sunday in New York, Boston scored the game's first 12 points and owned a 23-point lead after the first quarter. They are the first team since January 1965 to outscore opponents by at least 23 points in the first quarter in consecutive games, according to Elias Sports Bureau.

"At the beginning of the season, the first quarter was one of our most horrible quarters of the game, and then we found ourselves trying to fight back into the game the last three quarters," veteran Gerald Wallace said. "I think now we’ve made that turn to where the first quarter has pretty much been one of our best quarters and we’re able to maintain [that] through the next three quarters."

So what exactly has changed?

"I think our defense," Wallace said. "We’ve paid real good attention to details, the scouting report, our game plans, and we came out and executed them real well in the first quarter. We’re taking teams out of what they want to do, we’re forcing them to one shot, and we were able to knock down shots on the offensive end."

Avery Bradley noted that the coaching staff is helping players with scouting reports, particularly with how to slow down the opposition on the defensive end.

"The coaches are doing a great job preparing us for the game," Bradley said. "They’re doing an excellent job. They’re just laying everything out for us and telling us what we need to do, and we just have to go out there and give that effort every single game, and I feel like we have a chance to win every single game."

Jeff Green said Boston is making more shots early in games.

"We’re making shots, being aggressive and just executing our plays," he said. "It's as simple as that."