The rest of the Eastern Conference left the door open and the Celtics have charged in

On the evening of January 3rd, things looked bleak for the Celtics. Yes the season still had 51 games remaining, but considering how poorly the first 31 had gone, that was of little consolation to many. A 14-17 record, a bench that was supposed to be a strength of the team was instead floundering, and the team had fallen out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. It was the latest the C's had been out of the 'Top 8' in the East since the final game of the 2006-07 season. The standings on the 3rd were as followed (number in parenthesis show how far that team was up on Boston)

1. Heat - 22-8 (+ 8.5 games)
2. Knicks - 22-10 (+ 7.5)
3. Hawks - 20-10 (+ 6.5)
4. Pacers - 19-13 (+ 4.5)
5. Bulls - 17-13 (+ 3.5)
6. Bucks - 16-14 (+ 2.5)
7. Nets - 17-15 (+ 2.5)
8. Sixers - 15-18 (Percentage points)
9. Celtics - 14-17

It was an ugly scene on Legends Way. But then a funny thing started happening: The Celtics started to string a few wins together. And then a few more. Avery Bradley's return impacted the team in two very distinct ways, the first of which was on defense. After allowing 100+ points in 14 of their first 31 games, the C's have not allowed triple digits at all during their six game winning streak. Second, Bradley's insertion into the starting line-up finally allowed the bench to take shape. The Terry, Lee, Green, Sullinger grouping that had practiced together throughout the pre-season, finally got their chance to play together on a consistent basis. The results have been staggering. Before the winning streak the bench was averaging 30.7 points per game, but since the streak started - they've averaged 35.8 (NBA bench stats from hoopstats (link)). That five point bump in production is huge, because the bench is not actually playing more. So they've seen a 17% increase in scoring despite not being on the floor more. Five free points a game for the Celts really.

Another positive sign for the Green has been the lethargic play of nearly every team in front of them in the East. Take a look at the 9 'contenders' records since play began on January 4th:

1. Celtics - 6-0
2. Nets - 5-0
3. Pacers - 4-2
4. Bulls - 4-2
5. Bucks - 3-3
6. Knicks - 2-3
7. Heat - 2-4
8. Sixers - 1-4
9. Hawks 1-6

The Nets have clearly enjoyed an impressive streak of their own, and the Pacers and Bulls have played pretty well themselves. But the rest? It's not pretty. The two top teams, Miami and New York have seen their slumps coincide perfectly with the Celtics hot streak. And the Sixers and Hawks have both lost significant ground as they've fallen on hard times. The results of the past 11 days have completely shifted the Eastern Conference race. Here's where we stand today.

Less than two weeks ago the Celtics were nine games back of the Heat in the loss column. But now they are just as close to Miami (4.5 games) as they are to the playoff cut line (Philly). Not bad for six games work.

If the last couple weeks teach us anything, it's that the NBA season is a marathon not a sprint. Unlike the NFL, where a bad month will cripple your playoff hopes, the same is not true in basketball. Now this is not to say that a six game streak locks the Celtics into anything, because it doesn't. But it's amazing how much one good stretch of play, coupled with the other contenders struggling, has completely changed the playoff picture.

The best news of all? Over the next few weeks the schedule remains favorable for the Celts to continue this run. 10 of the next 15 games are at home, and only 3 of them are against teams currently sporting a .600 winning percentage (Knicks, Heat, Clippers - all at home). The stage is set for the Celtics to keep this thing going, and potentially make a run towards the top of the East. Should be a fun month.

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