Boston had lost back-to-back games, watched the Chicago Bulls pull even atop the Eastern Conference standings, was limping along with a 10-man roster (with five of those faces new arrivals), and was openly expressing frustration about struggles at both ends of the court.
Aided by the return of top reserve Glen Davis, the Celtics essentially rewrote the defensive section of their record book, establishing new marks for fewest points allowed in a half (22), three quarters (38) and a game while sashaying to an 87-56 win over the Milwaukee Bucks that -- even if just temporarily -- stopped the bleeding and thrust Boston back into sole possession of first place in the East.
Kevin Garnett didn't even try to downplay the achievement of a dominant defensive effort.
"Hell, yeah," Garnett said when asked if it felt good to hold a team to 56 points. "[Sunday] was just a different focus. We don't like to lose around here. We definitely don't like multiple losses. We're working for something that's bigger than everybody here, and today we had that focus."
Celtics coach Doc Rivers wasn't trying to be a killjoy, but admitted that the Bucks were in a pretty difficult position, having beaten the Philadelphia 76ers on the first night of a back-to-back Saturday in Milwaukee, then having to trek to Boston as the clocks sprung forward.
It reminded Rivers of Boston's worst outing of the season, when it got walloped in Phoenix on the second night of a back-to-back. But the lack of shut-eye couldn't have been the only reason Milwaukee shot 31.4 percent (22-of-70), turned the ball over 17 times and registered the fewest points in franchise history (ironically, Boston limited the Milwaukee Hawks to 57 points in a victory in Providence on Feb. 27, 1955, setting the previous franchise marks on both teams).
So Gino danced above the Garden floor for the first time since Jan. 21 (back when Kendrick Perkins hadn't even played his first game of the season for Boston, let alone his last) and the Celtics' newcomers looked on in befuddlement as Garnett raised his arm repeatedly toward the bearded "American Bandstand" groover with Boston up by 26 with less than three minutes to play.
Other benefits included, but were not limited to:
• Point guard Rajon Rondo, clearly in need of some additional rest after being run ragged in recent weeks, logged a starter-low 23:14. Yes, he connected on only one of six shots and handed out a mere three assists, which will do nothing to quell the "What's wrong with Rondo?" crowd. But the fact that Carlos Arroyo saw more court time (24:46) than Rondo is a positive for Boston.
"I thought [Rondo] played great, honestly," Rivers said in defense of his All-Star point guard. "Obviously, the points don't show it or anything, but early on our offense was moving -- the ball was moving. And he was responsible for that. So I don't look at his numbers -- I've said that since he's been here -- as much as everyone else does. And he didn't have to play a lot of minutes, which also helped. But I thought he did a good job of getting us in a good rhythm."
• Nenad Krstic put together his best defensive effort and posted 11 points and 14 rebounds over 26:58. There was great concern about what Milwaukee's Andrew Bogut might accomplish against a player still learning Boston's defensive schemes. But Bogut picked up two early fouls and finished with a very modest eight points and eight rebounds over 24:34.
"We just played great defense," Krstic said. "They scored 56 points. We were a little bit angry because we lost two games in a row, and you can see that the guys really played hard and I think that's a good thing. Sometimes you learn good things from the losses."
• Davis was eased back in, quietly posting nine points and seven rebounds over 17:45. He looked gassed at times, which could be expected of a player who sat out the past 10 days (and four games) and hadn't been on the court for more than skeleton work over the past two days.
"I'm going to do what Doc wants me to do," Davis said. "If he wants me to play 48 minutes, I'll play 48 minutes. If he wants me to play two minutes. I'm a guy that's confident in myself. The guys know what I can do. There's no need to prove. I'm just going to do the necessary things to win a championship."
• Troy Murphy got to shake some serious rust and build some much-needed confidence. Limited to bite-sized chunks of minutes over the past few games, Murphy earned 17:22 and responded by scoring 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting with seven rebounds, two steals and a block. That's just the sort of effort that should clear his mind after missing the first 10 shots he took over four games with Boston.
"It was great," Murphy said. "I haven't done that in a long time. It felt great to be out there and like Doc said, see the ball going in and get a little rhythm going."
But perhaps the most important thing of all was that the Celtics limited the minutes for all of their starters, who might as well have caught an early flight to New Jersey with the game secured midway through the third quarter.
Now Boston, which has endured seven losses on the second night of back-to-backs on the road this season, will have a fighting chance when it treks to New Jersey on Monday night.
Yes, this was exactly what the Doc(tor) ordered. And there's even more optimism behind it with Delonte West hoping to return Wednesday night against the Indiana Pacers. The Celtics hope they can look back at this game as a launching pad after a brief stumble.
"I think tonight was just about us and what we needed to do to get back on the right track," Garnett said. "Just trying to get our momentum back going into the latter part of the year."
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics for ESPNBoston.com.