WALTHAM, Mass. -- Shortly after the Boston Celtics formally completed the deal that delivered Jeff Green to the Memphis Grizzlies, president of basketball operations Danny Ainge leaned on the wall outside the Celtics' locker room and tried to explain the reasons behind the team's major in-season roster overhaul.
"I haven’t been too excited about what I’ve seen so far this whole year," Ainge said on January 12 when the Celtics stood at 12-23 and owned the seventh worst record in basketball. "I haven’t been that excited about seeing 20-point leads get blown, but I’m certainly not blaming it on [departed players like Rajon Rondo and Green], there’s a lot of people. But we’re just trying to get better. Listen, we have a lot of young guys now and they’ve become more of a focal point for us. They have to get better. Now there’s a little bit more onus on them to get better and take a little bit more responsibility."
Ainge made four more trades before last month's deadline, including what now seems like some thievery at the trading buzzer when he bolstered Boston's bench with the additions of Isaiah Thomas, Jonas Jerebko, and Gigi Datome -- three players that have helped spark Boston to a 7-3 record over the past 10 games.
Boston is 15-13 since the Green trade, 10-6 since early February, and has won four of its last five, the only loss coming, ironically, when it kicked away a 20-point lead against an Orlando team it'll see again on Friday night. But that's the outlier now, not the constant it used to be.
Two months after his "haven't been too excited" comments, Ainge finds himself at the opposite end of the NBA's fun spectrum.
"We're making strides. More than anything, I think Brad is having a really fun time coaching these guys. I think they have a fun time playing with one another and I really enjoy watching this team play," Ainge said during his weekly call to Boston sports radio 98.5 the Sports Hub on Thursday. "I have very realistic expectations for this group, though I’m enjoying every minute of it. I love being around them and watching them perform."
Let's start with the obvious: There's a direct correlation between winning games and fun. Lose games and it's all doom and gloom; win games and it's sunshine and puppy dogs. So it's no surprise that the Celtics are enjoying their recent success.
But maybe what's most satisfying to both members of the Celtics organization and the team's fan base is how rewarding the recent surge has been because of the rebuilding pains endured over the previous 20 months.
Few could have envisioned the Celtics injecting themselves into a playoff race two months ago (even in the dilapidated Eastern Conference). The Celtics were 13-26 when they departed for a six-game road trip out west that was supposed to ensure their position in the high lottery. Then Evan Turner hit a game-winner in Portland and Avery Bradley followed with one in Denver as Boston won a pair of one-point games. The Celtics returned 3-3 on the high-mileage trek that might have even surprised those inside the organization.
"From that point on, we’ve been in a mindset that, hey, if we really continue to improve, that we can be there at the end of games," said Stevens.
And with maybe just one outlier -- an absolute no-show against a lights out Cleveland team earlier this month -- the Celtics have been in every single game since that late January. What's more, once among the league's basement dwellers in winning crunch-time games, Boston has seen more games tip its way than not in recent nail-biters.
It happened again Wednesday night when Stevens and his whiteboard helped direct the Celtics to a 95-92 win over Green and the Grizzlies at TD Garden. Since mid-February, the Celtics have beaten the East-leading Atlanta Hawks, fumbled away a big lead with a chance to upset the West-leading Golden State Warriors, and topped the Grizzlies (second in the West).
The Celtics have an energy beneath their feet now and are content to ride this wave as far as it'll take them. Stevens is quick to caution that Boston still has an uphill battle to make the playoffs, but the Celtics entered Thursday's action within 2 games of the seventh seed in the East with 19 games to go and plenty of head-to-head matchups with those in front of them.
"I think the biggest thing is that you should take pride in playing well, you should take pride in doing your job as well as you can and continue to demand it of one and another, and continue to encourage one another," said Stevens. "Like I’ve said all along, we’re chasing everybody else. We’re behind. We dug a hole. But if we can continue to just play together and play well, you feel good about it. It doesn't mean every day is going to be perfect, it doesn’t mean you’re always going to get the result you want. But we’ve got a good momentum in that regard right now."
One of the things we keep hearing repeated by fans is that this team is simply more fun right now. Of course they are. Stevens is doing what he so famously did at Butler University, getting the absolute most out of his squad. The Celtics don't have the star power that most playoff contenders have -- having jettisoned their top individual talent in trades -- but what they have is a classic group over overachievers that are easy to embrace.
Boston players have welcomed the idea that they need all five players on the court pulling in the same direction and that anybody on the team is capable of making big plays at any moment. Yes, newcomer Isaiah Thomas has given the team the closer is so desperately lacked in recent seasons. But with Thomas sidelined by a bruised bottom on Wednesday, it was players like Evan Turner, Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, and Jae Crowder coming up with big crunch-time plays to help Boston secure a gritty win over the kings of grit-and-grind.
"We can have multiple guys being successful, day in and day out," said elder statesman Brandon Bass. "Avery closes out last night, and he has’t played in a couple games. IT, when he’s back, we’ll probably put the ball in his hands. Evan Turner could have it. I want to have it. Hey, it’s good to be part of a group like that."
So are these Celtics having more fun out on the court?
"I think so," said Bass. "I think we’ve grown so much from the start of the season until now, and Danny kept a good piece of the core to kinda build on and all the guys that he added to the team have just come on board and just rolled with us in a positive direction."
The Celtics don't know where this ride will end. The schedule is unforgiving to the finish line and there's the very real chance they'll be squeezed out of the postseason. Regardless, this experience has proven that there's a brighter future ahead, particularly if Ainge can add some additional talent this offseason.
And that might be the most fun part of this all.