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Close for comfort: Celts thrive in clutch

Tyler Zeller went for 18 points as the Celtics won their fourth consecutive game. Ron Hoskins/NBAE/Getty Images

If you're looking for the turning point of the Boston Celtics' 2014-15 season, you can start Jan. 22 in Portland. That was the night a desperate Jared Sullinger dove to the floor seeking a loose ball, then, from the seat of his pants, managed to find Evan Turner alone in the corner for the last-second 3-pointer that lifted Boston to a thrilling, one-point victory over the Blazers.

Couple that with a one-point triumph the next night in Denver, and everything changed for these Celtics. As coach Brad Stevens admitted earlier this week, "From that point on, we've been in a mindset that, hey, if we really continue to improve, we can be there at the end of games."

The Celtics have been there so often at the end of games lately, you could be forgiven if you wait until there are five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter to flip on the broadcast. The Celtics played their 38th "clutch" game -- the score within five points in the final five minutes -- of the season Saturday night at Indiana and withstood a charge from the league's hottest team to emerge with a 93-89 victory at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

With the win, Boston moved within a half-game of a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference and now sits only one game behind the currently seventh-seeded Pacers.

"These are the kind of games that I’ve alway liked -- just find a way," Stevens told reporters in Indiana. "Obviously, we like the games where you’re making every shot, when you have one of those nights. One of those nights -- it's called that for a reason. You’re not going to have it very often. You have to find a way, so we did that. That was good."

Consider this: Before Turner's late-game heroics in Portland, the Celtics were 5-15 (.250 win percentage) in clutch games this season. That's after going 15-34 (.306) in clutch games the past season. But since that Blazers victory, Boston has played a league-high 18 clutch games and is 11-7 (.611) in them. That success coincides directly with Boston's previously improbable push toward a playoff berth.

The Celtics (29-36) have now won four straight, six of their past seven and nine of their past 12. Boston, which owned the seventh-worst record in basketball before that Portland win, is 16-10 since then and, with 17 games remaining in the regular season, is making a push for the seventh seed.

Boston's surge defies logic. Not only does it come in a season of perpetual turnover (11 trades, 22 game players, 40 roster players), but also, it's not as if the Celtics have made huge statistical advancements over the past two months.

Boston has clamped down a bit defensively and ranks 12th in the league in defensive rating since Jan. 22. But the offense remains inconsistent (19th), and only a lowered turnover ratio has helped offset the team's shooting woes (24th in true shooting percentage).

No, the biggest difference is simply this: Boston has learned how to win close games. And it makes no sense.

The Celtics traded their two best players, Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green, by mid-January and in their absence, there has been a new hero virtually every night.

The addition of Isaiah Thomas at the trade deadline gave the team a much-needed fourth-quarter boost and a willing closer, but Thomas has been sidelined by a back injury the past three games, and the Celtics have responded with three gritty wins in clutch situations.

Maybe no game was more important than Saturday's in Indiana. The Pacers had won seven in a row and 13 of 15 dating to Feb. 1. The Celtics watched a 12-point lead diminish to two in the final seconds but hung on for the sort of victory that makes you take notice of what this team is doing.

Sure, the Celtics have had a couple statement wins along the way, including topping the Atlanta Hawks before the All-Star break and besting the Memphis Grizzlies earlier this week. But Boston found a way to beat a Pacers team that was rolling and did so on the second night of a back-to-back, after expending a lot of energy on a comeback against the Magic the night before.

"We knew it was going to be a grind game for us," Celtics forward Jae Crowder told reporters in Indy.

Later, he added, "I like close games. Not as much as blowouts, but tough games have really helped this team, especially late in the season and trying to make a playoff push. We didn't expect this to be easy."

The company line is one game at a time. The Celtics know their place in the standings but try not to obsess about it, knowing there's little they can do to control the teams around them. Then there's an unrelenting schedule that will see the Celtics play Feb. 20 to April 4 without more than a single day off between games and with seven back-to-backs in that stretch.

Not that back-to-backs have been an issue. In fact, Boston's second-night success is another anomaly. The Celtics are 7-1 on the second night of back-to-backs since the Portland and Denver one-point victories in late January. Once the team's biggest weakness in the elderly Big Three era, these fresh legs seem to excel in consecutive games.

Stevens noted the team made a point to embrace back-to-backs and a no-excuses style of play even before finding success in such games.

"It was one of those things that you could call a building block, even when we were going through some tough times," said Stevens, who earned his first pro win in his native Indianapolis on Saturday.

They'll see the Pacers again April 1, two days after they visit the Charlotte Hornets on March 30 in what could be another pivotal playoff battle. It seems fair to assume the Celtics are going to at least give themselves a chance to compete each time they hit the floor.

If the Celtics keep winning close games, they'll absolutely deserve any playoff spot they might sneak into.