Celtics see signs for optimism

WALTHAM, Mass. -- Wrapping up a rare dose of media responsibilities after running Boston's thin-on-numbers practice session on Monday, Celtics assistant coach Armond Hill talked about how the team weathered a two-game stretch without Rajon Rondo and the positives gleaned from that experience. Hill closed by noting, "Things are looking good."

Good? The Celtics stand at 9-8 and are eighth in a somewhat underwhelming Eastern Conference. Boston sits fourth in the Atlantic Division with a mere 1-3 record against its beefed-up brethren.

So how exactly are things looking good?

Coming off an encouraging two-game stretch without Rondo, there's an overwhelming sense around the Celtics that better things lie ahead. Growing pains were expected with an influx of new faces and there are still plenty of wrinkles to be ironed out, but Boston players and coaches truly believe that they are moving in the right direction … finally.

"We're not worried about the record. We know that it's a long season," guard Courtney Lee said. "We've got a long way to go and we're getting better as a team, and we know we're going to turn that around. You're going to start seeing us go on eight-game winning streaks. So we're definitely not focused on the record. Our main focus is just getting better and just continuing to work on things that Doc puts in."

Celtics fans are understandably frustrated with their team. Unlike the players and coaches, the casual observer has little to be optimistic about given what they've seen this season.

But the Celtics rarely have been the model of sustained regular-season efficiency. After Boston's 2008 championship season, fast starts were met with disinterested get-us-to-the-playoff finishes. A slow start last season gave way to a feverish finish and a team that came mere minutes from a trip to the NBA Finals.

Boston knows all too well that it can't ride this roller coaster too long, but players and coaches seem to believe the deepest dips potentially are behind them.

Even after one of Boston's most disenchanting losses of the season on Wednesday against the New Jersey Nets, coach Doc Rivers stressed that he wasn't ready to start slamming any panic buttons, he simply wanted to see his team start playing a more inspired -- and familiar -- brand of defense-first basketball.

The Celtics responded to Rivers -- and his insinuation that they were playing "soft" -- by putting together their best defensive effort of the season in a lopsided win over the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday. Boston opened Saturday's game in Milwaukee on a 17-0 run before fumbling the game away on the second night of a back-to-back.

Rivers doesn't often brush off losses, but he stressed he wasn't the least bit mad after the Bucks rallied. You can see encouraging signs and, while Rivers stresses that he still wants to win games while his team develops, you get the sense that he -- and his players -- believe that is coming sooner than later.

Heck, old friend Kendrick Perkins -- biased as he might be from his time in Boston -- suggested last month that the Celtics will emerge from their early-season funk soon and rip off a long winning streak.

So why the optimism amidst a yo-yo start? Here's a handful of reasons to be confident:

1. Follow the leader: Rondo is eligible to return to action with Wednesday's visit from the Minnesota Timberwolves. With his 37-game double-digit assist streak lost in the Humphries dust-up last week, Rondo's singular focus is on leading this team. While Rondo isn't remorseful for the actions that led to his suspension (sticking up for a teammate), he should return with a renewed focus on being a leader by example. The Celtics should have won both games of his absence, but his value on both ends of the floor cannot be overlooked. As Hill noted Monday, "[Rondo] has to lead by example and hard work." This suspension detour should only keep him on track moving forward.

2. Other reinforcements coming too: The Celtics spent Monday's practice session focused on pick-and-roll defense -- committing yet another session to cleaning up the weakest part of their defense so far this season. One player shouldn't be considered a savior for a struggling defense, but Avery Bradley remains pegged for a mid-December return, which could put him back on the practice floor very soon. Last season, Bradley ranked in the 82nd percentile among all NBA players, allowing a stingy 0.645 points per play to opposing pick-and-roll ball handlers, according to Synergy Sports data. Bradley's ability to stay in front of opposing ball handlers, all while allowing Rondo a bit more flexibility to gamble, will only strengthen Boston's defense on the perimeter.

3. Trickle-down effect: Once the Celtics have Rondo and Bradley back on the court, the team will be able to shuffle Jason Terry and Lee back to their intended reserve roles. Boston has been forced to lean on Terry as a starter, even though Rivers recruited Terry for a much-needed infusion of instant bench offense. Lee, who is showing signs of emerging from an early-season funk after a sit-down chat with Rivers last week, will be the strongest link in the second-unit defense, while there should be less stress on his offense (where he can settle in as a corner 3-point threat and someone able to generate easy points in transition).

4. The Celtics are underachieving: OK, that's painfully obvious, but we're not just talking about the team as a whole. Brandon Bass (44.3 percent shooting) and Paul Pierce (41.8 percent) are struggling with their shots; Kevin Garnett's defense hasn't been up to KG standards; Jeff Green is striving for more consistency while showing occasional flashes; Chris Wilcox is desperately trying to stay healthy; Jared Sullinger has been a bright spot, but the Celtics believe they are just scratching the surface of the 20-year-old forward. And the team still has an open roster spot for down the road, potentially to add an impact body before the stretch run.

Listen, there's no easy fix for the Celtics and right now they are what their record suggests they are: a .500 team with holes. Rivers keeps telling his team it needs to play with a better force and a renewed focus on defense.

We saw glimpses of that over the last two games. Boston should have won both, even without its star player. Now it needs to put together sustained 48-minute efforts, something even a rookie can see.

"We understand what we've got to do to win," Sullinger said. "It's tough, but I think, as a team, we're getting a lot better. I think that's just mental toughness. We're trying to develop it. We're getting better as a team. I mean, the little things that we didn't do that we're doing now are slowly coming into play, and now we've just got to do it for 48 minutes."