WALTHAM — At the beginning of the season, the Celtics weren’t sure if they could win.
“The first couple of games, it was 50-50,” Gerald Wallace said after practice on Saturday.
Too much was new, unfamiliar — players, coach, scheme. They were also surrounded by talk of “rebuilding” and “tanking,” and left to fill the holes of departed stars, and their best player still recovering from injury.
But 21 games into the season, much has changed.
The Celtics have won five of seven to improve to 9-12, and sit atop the Atlantic Division heading into their game Sunday against the 5-13 Knicks in New York.
There are statistics for most everything in basketball, especially today, when SportVU cameras can tell you how many times a player dribbled the ball during a game.
But there’s something to be said for the simple belief within players that they, as a team, can win on a given night, especially when little is expected of that team, one comprised of so much that is new.
“That’s very big,” said Jordan Crawford, who is averaging 16.2 points in the last five games. “That helps, expecting to win, to have the confidence before the game so that when you come out, if you take a hit, you know you can absorb it and keep it going.”
The belief that the Celtics have now is night-and-day different from when the season started.
“Then, we knew we could be good because we had a lot of pieces,” Crawford said. “But now we know that we’re going to go in and play as a team and where we’re going to get shots and how we’re going to defend certain situations. I think just with time, we got better.”
He said he could sense it growing.
“You notice it in the locker room, just the camaraderie, just the way we talk and the way we approach the game,” he said.
And Crawford said he notices a difference now.
“You can see it in each player,” he said. “Each player is confident. Each player has all had a great stretch throughout the season, and now we’re coming together and playing good ball together.”
Rookie coach Brad Stevens has said he’s “never happy,” and he’s always wary of praising any one aspect because he knows success is fragile and fleeting.
But he acknowledged that the Celtics now enter games truly believing they can win.
“That’s the case,” he said. “There’s a collective, ‘We’ve done it a few times and we know how the practices go, how the walkthrough goes.’ Everything becomes familiar, they’re acclimated.”
Added Stevens, “Great teams always expect to have a chance, but [they] understand that there’s a lot that goes into giving yourselves that chance. The challenge that we have and continue to have is that we’re a new collection of individuals and we’re forming ourselves as a team.
“Any time that you get in those situations that are really challenging, then what’s tested first and foremost is how together you are and how solid you are together, how much you’re going to respond to each other, how much you’re going to be able to lift each other up because you don’t know the other person well.
“And that’s what’s improving. But it’s still — we’re young, we’re two months into this thing. But I think that it is improving. It is improving. And that’s giving us a better chance.”
Stevens also pointed out that one of the Celtics’ wins, last Tuesday against Milwaukee, easily could have gone the other way if they hadn’t hit a couple key shots.
“If we lose that game, then what’s the reaction?” Stevens asked. “But if we win it, well, we’re ‘on top of the league’ and blah, blah, blah.’
“I think the biggest thing is how you respond when things get tight or when things start going well, so we’ll see.”
Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony is allegedly “recruiting” Rajon Rondo to come play for the Knicks — at least that’s what Steve Smith, who coached both players at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia, told USA Today.
“Come on, man. In my book, that’s tampering,” Anthony told reporters Friday.
By rule, NBA players aren’t allowed to recruit players who are under contract with other teams.
Wallace said playing at Madison Square Garden no longer carries any special significance for him. In fact, the veteran swingman said any mystique that the arena had faded during his first visit, when he saw a rat. “I was kind of shook off of that,” he said . . . Sunday’s game starts at noon. How does that affect players? “It’s real different for me,” said the 31-year-old Wallace. “It takes a lot more to get yourself going in the morning. It’s going to be whichever team comes out and takes [control] of the game.” . . . Stevens ruled out Kelly Olynyk (sprained right ankle) for Sunday’s game, but Olynyk said he hopes to return to practice Monday and that he’d be day-to-day after that.Baxter Holmes can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @BaxterHolmes.