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Celtics learning how to win close games

BOSTON -- The Boston Celtics should have been more panicked when the Philadelphia 76ers trimmed what had been a 26-point lead down to three early in the fourth quarter of Friday's game. But maybe Jared Sullinger best summed up Boston's thought process at that moment.

"Did you see how many leads we were blowing early in the season? We’re kinda used to it," explained Sullinger. "We knew how to respond; we responded well."

Yes, the Celtics have had a way of watching comfortable early leads morph into late-game nail-biters. But maybe no area suggests greater growth than this team's ability to pull out close games recently.

The Celtics have quietly won six of their last 10 games, including three in a row. None of those wins have been of the breezy variety. Boston pulled out a pair of 1-point heart-stoppers in Portland and Denver at the start of this stretch, and closed this week by making key late-game plays to seal wins over the Nuggets and 76ers.

The 76ers twice rallied within three in the fourth quarter, but both times veteran shooting guard Marcus Thornton responded with 3-pointers that helped fend off the charge.

"A few weeks ago, we probably would have got rattled and probably wouldn't have come out with the game," admitted Thornton. "So we're starting to gel as a team and starting to play for one another. That's a great thing."

Here are some numbers to digest:

• Since the Jeff Green trade was consummated on Jan. 12, the Celtics are 5-3 in what the league defines as "clutch" games or contests that are within five points in the final five minutes. That .625 winning percentage ranks Boston ninth in the league in that span. That's in stark contrast to Boston's dismal 4-14 mark in those same "clutch" games earlier in the season. Boston's .222 winning percentage was tied with Minnesota for the second worst in the league, ahead of only the New York Knicks (3-17, .150)

• Parse the data further and look at games decided by three points or less in the final minute. Boston had been 4-11 (.267) in those games, but is 4-2 (.667) since the Green deal.

What this suggests is, despite losing their two most talented individual players and the bodies that most frequently handled the ball in late-game situations, these young Celtics have figured out how to win close games together.

That's no small feat. Maybe the hardest thing for a young transitioning team to do in this league is learn to win. But a team that has been on the wrong side of those close games so often over the past 1 ½ seasons seems to be turning the corner a bit.

What they did Friday was particularly impressive. After Philly got within 3, Boston embarked on a 16-4 run in less than a five-minute span, mixing timely offense with increased defensive intensity as the Celtics pushed their lead back to 15 with under three minutes to play.

"You go through all these situations so many times in a year, I was really happy with how we responded," said Stevens. "I thought we responded really well. I mean, we went right back up to 15 and that’s hard to do, especially when things just aren’t going your direction."

Added Stevens: "Knock on wood, because this can change, but sometimes it’s just dependent on the game you’re playing and whether the ball bounces in or not, but we’ve been good in those moments in really the most part of the month. And we had a little bit of an adjustment, obviously, after [Rajon] Rondo was traded, and Jeff was traded. But in close games -- or we’ve had to come back in a couple of these games -- I feel like for the most part it’s been a positive in the last eight minutes of games. So that’s encouraging from where we started the year."

Part of the reason the Celtics believed that they had taken a step forward this season is that the team played so poorly in close games a year ago during Stevens' tenure. Boston finished 15-34 in "clutch" games, it's .306 winning percentage ahead of only the Milwaukee Bucks (.250).

What we're seeing now is growth, something that's not always easy to see on a game-to-game basis. These young Celtics have been given the chance to step up in big moments and they are embracing that challenge.

“We’re getting better, we’re learning, that’s a step in the right direction for us as a unit," said Jae Crowder, obtained in December as part of the Rondo deal. "We’re trying, from the coaching staff to the players, we’re trying to play basketball the right way. That’s what’s gotten us these past few wins."

The Celtics' playoff odds have dipped hard this past week, in part because of a three-game losing streak. But despite the long odds and the sheer number of teams in front of them while jockeying for a playoff spot, the Celtics have bought into that possibility.

"Guys in here are trying to win," said Crowder. "A lot of people counted us out, so we have a lot of pride in this locker room and the city has a lot of pride, so we want to keep playing for those guys, playing for ourselves, and playing basketball the right way to give ourselves a chance."