INDIANAPOLIS-- If this is the last hurrah for Boston's big three, they appear determined to be heard.
With a revamped lineup and re-energized veteran leaders, the Celtics have turned their season around and are one of the hottest teams in the Eastern Conference. An 86-72 victory over Indiana Saturday was typical of the way the Celtics have played recently, employing a smothering defense and an efficient offense to stifle the Pacers.
Indiana shot 35 percent and matched its season-low point total, while the Celtics had 27 assists on 32 buckets as Paul Pierce (24), Ray Allen (19) and Kevin Garnett (15) combined for 68 points.
"Give Doc Rivers a lot of credit for turning their season around," Indiana Coach Frank Vogel said. "They've become the best defensive team in the league again. They're playing at a very, very high level. That's a championship crew over there -- a championship coach, a championship core and they know how to get it done."
This could've been the season Celtics President Danny Ainge opted to break up the aging core of the team, and rumors of deals persisted throughout the first half of the season as the team struggled to a 15-17 mark at the All-Star break. But the trade deadline passed without a move and the team came to life.
The Celtics have gone 16-7 since the break to climb past Philadelphia into the Atlantic Division lead while holding down the fourth seed in the East playoff bracket. They're 2 games behind the third-place Pacers. Only Chicago (16-5) has been better since the break.
Rivers hesitates to credit the decision to keep the team together for one more run as the reason for the resurgence.
"It may have something to do with it. I doubt it but I don't know," Rivers said. "Even before the deadline, I was saying our team, they get along, it's a good group because they can have drag-out arguments in practice and the next day you don't know anything happened. That's the sign of a good group -- not a lot of grudges."
Two critical moves to the rotation also have helped: shifting Garnett to center while bringing Allen off the bench.
It's risky because both players are in unfamiliar roles but has worked thus far.
"K.G. playing at center, most teams in the East, that's not a problem. Most teams don't have a power-post center that you can go at that matchup," Vogel said. "Being able to play him and Bass together, with the mobility they bring at the big positions allows them to cover a lot of ground.
"And since K.G. has set foot on Boston's scene, has said 'We're going to change the culture and bring a defensive mindset.' They saw a big challenge ahead with a lot of road games and I think Doc and K.G. just said, 'We know how to win at a high level and it's going to happen on the defensive end' and they've willed themselves to it."
The Celtics have held 12 consecutive opponents to less than 100 points while winning six of eight. The only two losses in that span were back-to-backs to the Spurs and Bulls by a combined total of eight points.
Allen missed six games with a sprained ankle and while he was out, Bradley sparkled as a starter, bringing a defensive spark to the perimeter while providing timely scoring. When Allen was ready to return, Rivers asked him to fill the sixth man role. For a player that had started all but four games in his career to that point, it was a tough request but Allen has accepted the change.
"He's still going to play the same minutes and he'll play with the starters as well as the second unit," Rivers said. "But when he comes off the bench we're going to go right to him and Kevin. That's the two scorers with that group and that's the way we hope that it works out.
"The only reason we did it when we did it, we just looked at the schedule and I told our coaching staff 'I don't think this is the right time to do it' but at the time we had 14 games left, so let's get it done so by the time the playoffs come hopefully both (units) have a good rhythm. "
Whether the Celtics can challenge the Bulls and Heat in the postseason remains to be seen. But at least it's a topic for discussion, instead of a punch line.