C's recapturing gritty roots

Kevin Garnett didn't want to touch the subject, seemingly afraid that merely acknowledging the strides made by the Celtics' defense might undo everything they've worked so hard to correct lately.

After coach Doc Rivers suggested last month that his team was soft, Garnett and the Celtics responded by getting back to their gritty, defense-first roots. Over the last five games, Boston has essentially shaved 10 points from its defensive rating (points per 100 possessions) and has given itself a chance to win each game.

Sure, Boston is a mere 2-3 in those five contests (including the loss to the Brooklyn Nets in which Rivers made his "soft" statement at halftime), but it's impossible to ignore the progress being made and there remains this growing sense around the team that it is poised to make a run soon.

As long as it can maintain this sort of defensive intensity.

"I don't want to say [the defense has made progress]," said Garnett. "I want to wait the next four or five games, where we could put a nice consistent stand together, then I can come back and be a little bit more accurate. But for right now, we're trying to take this thing one day at a time, one practice at a time, one game at a time, and be more consistent with it."

Consider this: The Celtics have posted a 92.2 defensive rating over their last five games. Over the first 10 games of the season? Boston had a 102.3 defensive rating.

Make no mistake, problems persist. The Celtics remain last in the league in transition defense (ball security isn't helping their cause) and are still working out issues with an improving pick-and-roll defense. But the progress is impossible to ignore, even if it hasn't always manifested itself in the win column.

"[The defense has] been great; it really has been," said Rivers. " You know, we can't string a streak of wins together yet, but you can feel us playing better. So you feel like it's coming; just nothing's happened. We're treading water, but I like our trend; I like where we're going."

The Celtics have tweaked their pick-and-roll coverage in recent games, trapping ball-handlers more often instead of having big men simply hedge and recover. It's simplified things for defenders and helped fluster opposing ball-handlers. Boston is actually the top-ranked defense in the league against pick-and-roll ball-handlers, according to points-per-play data logged by Synergy Sports.

Trouble lies with defending big men in the pick-and-roll. Rotations have been sloppy (and slow), and opposing bigs have generated easy buckets at an alarming rate when left uncovered (Boston ranks 26th in defending pick-and-roll bigs, according to Synergy).

During a home-and-home against the 76ers this past weekend, the Celtics even mixed in some zone defense and it served as a bit of a change-up when Philadelphia sat on the man-to-man fastball.

But the biggest change to Boston's defense over the past five games is simply: intensity. The Celtics and their new-look bench are committed to being a better defensive team and they appear more in-tune after 20 games. Just look at Saturday's win over the 76ers.

"We know when we commit to that end of the floor and we're all on the same page, that's what we are," captain Paul Pierce said when asked about being a defensive-minded team. "We saw glimpses of it [Friday] night for most of the game, and I told the guys after the game that if we continue to play like that, then we're going to win a lot more games than we have. So we have to stick to our principles and stay consistent with that and continue to improve."

Rivers suggested the defensive tweaks have been incredibly minor. Boston's turnaround is based more on increased comfort and intensity, he said.

"We're graduating from not knowing to now knowing," quipped Rivers. "We're still not doing it consistently yet, but we're better at it, I can say that. We've taken great strides, to me, over the last five games, even though the numbers don't always show it, but you can feel it, you can see it. Now the next step is being a consistent team with it, offensively and defensively. We haven't been very consistent this year."

Boston's defensive numbers are bouncing back after the atrocious start. After toiling in the back end of the league out of the gates, Boston now ranks 13th in the NBA, allowing 0.911 points per play, according to Synergy data. In halfcourt sets, that number drops to 0.847 points per play, which ranks sixth in the league.

When the Celtics make shots and force opponents into halfcourt games, they are tough to beat. And, truth be told, the team believes it could be even tougher when Avery Bradley -- the team's best on-ball defender -- returns from shoulder surgeries.

"Our pressuring the ball, without Avery, we just kind of backed off of that," admitted Rivers. "So I know that's an area we're going to get way better. Because when he does it, everyone does it and it helps your team. Right now it's just hard to do."

The Celtics will be tested over the next week with games against the Texas trio -- Dallas visits TD Garden on Wednesday, then Boston treks to Houston and San Antonio -- and Chicago. That's four playoff-caliber opponents in seven nights.

If Boston is going to make its much-desired run, it won't be easy. But it has to start with defense. And maybe then Garnett will be willing to talk about the improvements he's seen.