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Defense Will be Key to Celtics’ 2nd-Half Playoff Push

DALLAS, TX — Despite losing 10 games by six points or less, Brad Stevens and his young Boston Celtics squad are poised to make their second consecutive playoff appearance.

Not bad for a team where the average age on the roster is 24.6 years old.

Although they lost a heartbreaking game to the Dallas Mavericks in overtime on Monday night, the young Celtics (22-20) have won three of their last four games and are playing some of their best ball of the season. If the playoffs started today, Boston would be the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference and in line for a rematch from last year’s playoffs against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

This scenario is the polar opposite of the team which lost six of seven games two weeks ago, including dropping back-to-back games to the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers, two of the worst teams in the Association. So what’s been the key to the Celtics getting things right?

“First half was a little struggle for us — blowing leads and not finishing down the stretch. We are just trying to stay focused and stay together to make sure that doesn’t happen again.” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. “We reestablished our identity which has been on the defensive end — we are going to make you work for everything, and you can’t be lazy around us.”

In a very competitive home game against the Indiana Pacers last week, the Celtics showed just how good they can be when committing to the defensive end. By creating havoc and being aggressive on defense, the C’s were able to get steals on four consecutive plays to turn a three-point deficit into a five-point lead in only one minute of game action.

To the excitement of Stevens and his staff, the young Celtics bottled that minute of defensive magic and used it to go on a mini three-game winning streak along with overcoming an 18-point deficit against the Mavericks on the road to force overtime. With half of the NBA season already gone, the Celtics’ recent streak of defensive prowess is serving as a wake-up call and blueprint all in one, as they now rank only behind San Antonio in defensive efficiency.

“That’s where it all started — from the defensive end,” Celtics big man Jared Sullinger said while talking about the recent winning streak. “We’ve been playing great; we finally have been able to put both sides of the ball together. We are scoring the ball a lot, and we’re defending as well. We’re improving every day, and we are not blind to the fact we are young but we are getting better every day.”

With only five other of their last 13 games before the All-Star break against teams with a winning record, the Celtics are in prime position to make a charge up the Eastern Conference standings to improve upon their seventh-place finish from last season.

Unlike last season when making the playoffs was a bonus, a playoff appearance this season is expected — a major goal of this talented roster.

“It’s the biggest deal and our biggest goal right now is to get back to where we were last year, and win games in the playoffs,” Celtics forward Jae Crowder said. “All five guys on the court have to be on the same page and the whole bench and coaching staff have to be on the same page. Once we get that and move in the right direction we will be fine.”

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