The Celtics are nestled in seventh place in the Eastern Conference standings, six games behind the top-seeded Chicago Bulls, which is astounding considering Boston’s troublesome first seven weeks.
A 5-9 start, a mass of injuries, and out-of-shape players caused uncertainty in Boston. Now matters are beginning to settle. Paul Pierce is back in top condition and is headed for his 10th All-Star Game, Kevin Garnett may not be spectacular as often but he’s been steady, and Rajon Rondo responded from perhaps his worst game in recent memory Friday in Toronto with a triple-double Sunday against the Bulls.
The Celtics have played 18 of their first 27 games at home, meaning 24 of the final 39 games will be away from TD Garden, and a series of extended road trips begins Thursday in Chicago, so team president of basketball operations Danny Ainge is reserving his enthusiasm for now.
“The team is playing better,’’ he said yesterday. “We have a real challenge ahead of us. The schedule gets really hard. We have a lot of road games coming up but our team has been playing much, much better. Our team is playing well over the past few weeks, but we need to get better.’’
It was less than a month ago that Ainge made headlines by telling the Globe he would be open to moving any of the Big Three and perhaps Rondo. Those talks have subsided. The Celtics have played well enough over the past month, as coach Doc Rivers projected, to become a contender in the Eastern Conference.
While the Bulls and Heat are the prohibitive favorites, teams such as the 76ers, Pacers, and Magic have experienced troubles over the past few weeks, giving the Celtics a legitimate chance to jump to the third seed by season’s end.
“What I have seen league-wide is there’s been some very inconsistent play with most every team,’’ Ainge said. “And that’s certainly been the case with us. I did expect us to have some good stretches and not-so-good stretches throughout the course of this year, even before the season started, but I knew we were a better team than we were playing [like] at the beginning of the year. We still have a long way to go, there’s a lot of games in a short period of time, and we’re going to be tested.’’
The roster Ainge assembled in the offseason has allowed Rivers some unusual options. Both knew all 15 players would need to contribute during this shortened season and all 15 have had their time to shine. Journeyman Chris Wilcox and rookie JaJuan Johnson filled in for the injured Jermaine O’Neal and Brandon Bass Sunday with sparkling performances. Rookie E’Twaun Moore and second-year guard Avery Bradley flourished when Rondo missed eight games with a sprained right wrist.
And even late addition Greg Stiemsma has come off the bench for quality minutes.
“I feel everybody has had good moments,’’ Ainge said. “The whole key to our success is going to be health and developing a chemistry, execution is part of that chemistry that is still a work in progress. When guys have been given a chance to play they have performed. Paul getting healthy has helped us. Rajon getting back, you can see what a great player he is with his performance [Sunday].
“Paul said it best when he said we can be a playoff team without Rajon and a [title] contender with him.’’
Rondo has been the subject of trade rumors but games such as Sunday’s - 32 points, 10 rebounds, 15 assists - display his true value to the roster. Even with Chicago missing Derrick Rose and with Pierce and Ray Allen shooting a combined 7 for 19, the Celtics still led the Bulls wire-to-wire.
“He really has the ability to step things up in big games and do great things,’’ Ainge said of Rondo.
The major obstacle for the Celtics in the final 39 games is health. O’Neal has struggled all season with nagging ailments and has missed the past two games with a sore left shoulder after missing games with bone bruises on both knees. Bass will miss perhaps two weeks with a sore right knee.
“We have to evaluate health long term and we have to try to figure out what the health situation is going to be,’’ Ainge said. “We have a 15-man roster. We knew we’d use our whole 15-man roster this year. If we feel like we can improve [through trade], then we will. We will always try to improve our team. But right now we like the players on our team. We like the character of the team and the work ethic and we have to evaluate that over the next month [before the trade deadline].’’