Their season hasn’t been easy. Neither have their wins.
Instead, they’re hard-earned, often coming in a neck-and-neck affair that leaves these veteran Celtics sighing in relief when the scoreboard favors them at the final buzzer.
“We’re grinding,” Kevin Garnett said after the Celtics beat the Atlanta Hawks in overtime, 107-102, Friday night at TD Garden. “We’re showing our character.”
Or, as Paul Pierce said after his team’s fifth consecutive win and ninth straight win at home: “We just continue to fight.”
The Nets also won Friday, meaning the Celtics are 1½ games behind Brooklyn for fourth in the Eastern Conference standings, a spot that comes with home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
The Celtics are tied with the Hawks for sixth place, a half-game behind Chicago for fifth.
Of course, those numbers will change plenty on the coming weeks, but given that the Celtics had a sub-.500 record less than two months ago, it’s almost surreal to imagine this team — minus Rajon Rondo and others — in such a position.
As it stands, the Celtics continue to gain experience at the one thing they know better than any Celtics team in history: Overtime.
These Celtics have played 11 extra-session games this season, a franchise record. (The previous mark was nine, set by the 1950-51 and 1953-54 teams.)
The Celtics have won seven of those games.
“The good part is that we’re winning them,” coach Doc Rivers said.
The bad part is overtime games aren’t optimal for a team that relies heavily on 35-and-older stars in Garnett and Pierce.
All told, the Celtics have played a franchise-record 16 overtime sessions, which equates to 80 minutes of floor time.
Fittingly, the last time the Celtics and Hawks met, Jan. 25, the game went to double overtime, and the Celtics lost after having led by 27 points.
On Friday, the Celtics again led by double digits (12) before Atlanta closed regulation on a 20-8 run.
Atlanta took a 98-94 lead in the extra session. That’s when the Celtics started to rain shots from beyond the arc, each more clutch than the last.
First, after a Pierce layup, Jeff Green gave the Celtics their first lead of the overtime with a how-did-that-go-in shot from the left corner.
The arching shot hit the side of the rim, bounced skyward, then rattled back down and through as the Garden crowd roared and rose to its feet.
Josh Smith answered on the Hawks’ next possession with a 3-pointer to put Atlanta back on top, 101-99, with 2:14 left.
And then Pierce hit one of his routine late-game shots, on which the shot clock was winding down, a defender was in his face, and he seemed to be off balance.
The ball sailed from beyond the 3-point arc, ripped through the net, and the Celtics led once again.
Smith sank one of two free throws on the other end to tie the score at 102 with 1:20 left.
Immediately after, Jason Terry was called for an offensive foul after he tried to screen Garnett’s man, but Terry made amends by stealing a pass from Smith.
Then, with 35 seconds left, Terry put a finishing touch on the back-and-forth night with a 3-pointer from the top of the key after Avery Bradley grabbed an offensive rebound.
The 35-year-old guard known as “Jet” spread his arms and cruised back down court as Atlanta called a timeout with the building at its most deafening.
The Celtics led by 3 and the win would be theirs.
Rivers credited Terry for his 19 points off the bench, but said Terry’s defense on Atlanta sharpshooter Kyle Korver was also key.
“And he was like glue; he just stayed on him, took away his shots,” Rivers said.
Korver, who made eight 3-pointers in the last meeting, scored just 3 points Friday on 1-of-5 shooting.
Pierce again carried the Celtics, with 27 points, 7 rebounds, and 7 assists, and Garnett added 17 points and eight rebounds. Green finished with 12 points.
Smith scored a game-high 32 points and Jeff Teague had 26.
Boston’s bench outscored Atlanta’s, 46 to 8.
“I thought we made some mistakes,” Rivers said. “Defensively we lost guys when we shouldn’t have, we switched when we shouldn’t have.
“Those are all things you can work on, so I can live with all of those, but I just thought we played with the right spirit.”
These patchwork Celtics have now beaten two straight teams that ranked ahead of them in the East standings. The disappointment of season-ending injuries to Rondo and Jared Sullinger seems to be fading by the win — and there have been 14 of them, against just four losses, since Rondo went down. The playoffs may tell a different tale, but they aren’t there just yet.
For now, Garnett said this team isn’t looking for handouts or sympathy.
“We don’t expect anybody to give us nothing,” he said.
Instead, the Celtics are earning everything they’ve taken, and what they’ve taken of late is wins, each of them battles, each more satisfying than the one that came before.Baxter Holmes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BaxterHolmes