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For depleted Celtics, Bulls provided a benchmark win

Celtics center Kelly Olynyk pulls a rebound away from the Bulls’ Joakim Noah in the second half Saturday.Tannen Maury/EPA

By Gary Washburn

Globe staff

It’s been rather uncomfortable the past two nights for Celtics coach Brad Stevens. He has watched helplessly as his team has eked out close victories, including Saturday’s 5-point win over the Chicago Bulls, perhaps the biggest win of his era.

The Celtics were missing two players. Rajon Rondo and Marcus Smart did not make the trip, but Stevens shuffled his lineup, placing Evan Turner at point guard and banking that his younger core would understand that nights like these are part of the growth period.

Kelly Olynyk has to get tougher. Jared Sullinger has to continue to play with the edge that allows him to defend bigger men and avoid discouragement when they score over him. Jeff Green has to impose his will on every game, not just occasional ones. And Avery Bradley has to become more discriminating about his shots.


All of those objectives will come in time, but Stevens and the organization want it occur sooner than later. Stevens is weary of the difficult losses. He wants to see his arduous work come to fruition. He wants his team to win in adverse circumstances, and Saturday's victory was a benchmark.

For 2½ hours, the Celtics ignored Rondo's absence and Smart's injury and just played ball with the 12 guys who made the trip. That is the perseverance Stevens has been waiting for, and the victory was a significant step in the Celtics' quest to return to respectability.

The consensus around the NBA is that the Celtics have improved and played relentlessly under Stevens. That final point is critical because it is how the Celtics are going to win their share of games, by simply outhustling the opponent.

Stevens couldn't disguise his pride after the victory, although he wasn't exactly ecstatic.

"We gotta do a lot better and we've obviously got to get healthy," the coach said. "I thought we did some really good things but we've got to play more 48 minutes, which is easier said than done when you're on the road like this. The poise the last two nights has been very, very encouraging and the ball movement and the ability to make plays with our big (men) for our guards has been good on offense."


The two rebounds that Olynyk secured in the waning minutes against Chicago were monumental to his confidence. Over the past two years, Olynyk has played like a stretch-four, with finesse and on the perimeter.

But he is also 7 feet and athletic, and without a legitimate center other than backup Tyler Zeller, Olynyk needs to play more like a center. He needs to be more physical and gritty. He needs to emerge as more of an interior threat.

"I think people are taking us lightly," said Olynyk, who also could have been describing himself. "I think for us, it's how well everyone is playing together and how much of a team we are and everybody pulling together and everyone doing their job and everyone stepping up on different nights."

When president Danny Ainge constructed this roster in the next level of his rebuilding plan, he added similarly talented players, making the Celtics a difficult team to face. Through six games, the Celtics have six players averaging 8.5 or more points per game.

Turner, who scored a combined 22 points in the previous four games, led Boston with 19 against the Bulls. The immediate goal for this collection of players is gaining chemistry and learning how to win close games.

Last year the Celtics were a putrid fourth-quarter team, allowing teams to essentially rest the first three quarters and turn on the intensity in the final period while the youthful Celtics panicked.


On Saturday, they didn't panic, despite Aaron Brooks looking like Allen Iverson in the fourth quarter with 19 points.

"Once again, this just shows our capability and our mental capacity," Turner said. "[Our balance] is a big thing. It contributes to our success, especially when guys go down. I think we have playoff capabilities, and it's only the sixth game but we keep growing and keeping our poise. The same thing with our coaches. I think coach Stevens is going to get better game in and game out. I think we can have a great presence in the East."

Turner said he's noticed that the team "dissects" each win or loss and discovers the genesis of their success or failure. Learning how to win, in many ways, is learning why you lose. The Celtics lost 57 games last season and three of their first four this season.

The past two games have exemplified the baby steps the Celtics are taking toward eventual success. It's early in the season, and the schedule for the next few weeks is treacherous, but success can only breed confidence, especially with players who never have enjoyed prosperity at the NBA level.

For those observers seeking signs of progress after the destruction of the Big Three Era and the beginning of a new one, Saturday's victory was a major one.

Gary Washburn can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.