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Celtics discover identity, gain confidence

Celtics coach Brad Stevens admits there might be some positives his team might eventually pluck from defeat. AP Photo/Nell Redmond

Maybe it's simply a hangover in part from a pair of intoxicating battles with the two best teams in the NBA, but the Boston Celtics appear to be playing with a newfound poise and confidence. This young Boston roster truly believes it is now capable of competing with anyone in the league.

The Celtics didn't always ooze that machismo. Even after a mesmerizing second-half surge last season, most assumed the Celtics would get steamrolled by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the opening round of the playoffs. Boston was competitive but never really threatened a Cleveland squad that swept the Celtics out of the playoffs.

LeBron James and the Cavaliers come to Boston on Tuesday for the first of three meetings this season and their only regular-season appearance at TD Garden. On the heels of standing toe-to-toe with both the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs, combined with quality recent wins against a trio of potential Eastern Conference playoff squads, it seems these Celtics are eager for a chance to show the East's top dog how much they've improved since April.

Do these Celtics have a newfound swagger about them? Two weeks ago following a head-shaking loss in Orlando, Jae Crowder lamented Boston's lack of identity and an uncertain rotation amid a roller-coaster start to the season. Since that night, Boston has won five of its past seven games, the only two losses being a double-digit rally that came up just short in San Antonio and a double-overtime slobberknocker against a Golden State squad that now owns the second-longest winning streak in league history.

Maybe this is fleeting, but the Celtics seemed to have embraced their identity as a defense-first team that will lean on that backbone in order to compete most nights. A roster without a surefire go-to player, the Celtics have embraced the idea that it's going to take a team approach to succeed.

Boston was notably composed at the end of Saturday's win in Charlotte. Even as the Hornets, winners of four straight and lingering near the top of the East, made a late-game charge, Boston never flinched. For a team that struggled to win close games at the start of the season, the Celtics played like a team that knew it was going to pull that game out (and sandwiched between the Golden State and Cleveland games, the Celtics needed to find a way to steal it).

There was a sequence late in the fourth quarter in which Crowder missed a 3-pointer that might have sealed the win with 89 seconds to play. Instead, the Hornets got the ball back down one with a chance to take a lead. Boston calmly retreated on defense, where Evan Turner offered a quick dap to Crowder despite the miss, as if to say, "No problem, we'll just stop them here." Boston switched Kemba Walker's initial attempt to drive on a pick-and-roll, but he managed to move past Turner and into the paint on a second attempt. Amir Johnson, Boston's big offseason splurge, calmly shuffled over and blocked Walker's layup attempt, and the Celtics held on from there.

In the tail end of back-to-backs that close on the road, Boston has now improbably won 10 straight. That includes a gritty win in Miami on the final day of November, the day after that disheartening effort in Orlando.

Entering Sunday's game, the Celtics were 4-5 in what the league defines as "crunch time" games or when the score is within five points in the final five minutes of play. That low number is due in part to some lopsided victories, but, regardless, only two teams in the league had a lower win total in crunch-time games: the Los Angeles Lakers (2-10) and Philadelphia 76ers (0-11).

Boston evened up its season mark by edging Charlotte. Three of those "crunch time" wins came in the past seven games with wins over the Chicago Bulls, Miami Heat, and Hornets -- or a trio of teams that entered Sunday's action with a .600 winning percentage.

In the immediate and emotional aftermath of Friday's double-overtime loss to the Warriors, Celtics coach Brad Stevens swatted down the notion that there's such a thing as a "great loss" and made sure to stress that there's "not even a good one." Stevens would later relent that there were positives his team might eventually pluck from defeat.

In those losses to San Antonio and Golden State, Boston may have discovered something about itself. If these Celtics can trade haymakers with Aldridge/Duncan/Ginobili and Curry/Green/Iguodala in crunch time, then there's not many teams in the league that will leave Boston questioning itself.

The Celtics have an identity and a rotation now. Soon they'll get Marcus Smart back, a player that improves their depth and may be the poster child for that defensive identity. Each night is still going to be a battle for this star-less roster, but Boston found out a lot about itself the past two weeks, and it should go a long way toward helping this team achieve its goals of taking another step forward this season.