Last season, with expectations and projections at a minimum, the Celtics improbably surged toward the postseason and finished with 40 wins. It was hardly a milestone, particularly for a franchise with a history as rich as this one. But it was notable nevertheless.
This year, the most important chapters still need to be written. But Monday night, the Celtics took one more small but significant step. They defeated the Magic, 107-96, and grabbed their 41st win of the season. They have already topped last year's total, and there are still 11 games remaining.
"We're not where we want to be," point guard Isaiah Thomas said, "but we're getting there."
The win over Orlando should help calm the frayed nerves of some Celtics fans. After standout forward Jae Crowder suffered a high ankle sprain March 11, Boston lost four games in a row and outwardly appeared to lose some of its swagger. Sunday's victory against the lowly 76ers was not impressive, but it might have been important for the Celtics to regain that good feeling.
On Monday, the Celtics faced an undermanned but still-athletic Magic team that had defeated them in two of three prior meetings this season, and Boston was mostly in control throughout.
Thomas led the Celtics with 28 points, 7 assists, and 5 rebounds. The feisty point guard had several moments that caused the TD Garden crowd to gasp in awe. He put the ball behind his back on a fast break, he passed it between his legs, and he floated shots that seemed to kiss the sky before floating through the rim.
"I don't know," Thomas said. "I had a little pep in my step today, I guess."
Kelly Olynyk had his best game since returning after missing 12 games with a sprained shoulder, tallying 22 points and five rebounds. He had made just 1 of 10 3-pointers since coming back last week, and on Monday he made 4 of 6 attempts.
Olynyk shed the small brace that had been helping protect his shoulder, and he said it allowed him to shoot more freely. But mostly, he said, he is simply getting more comfortable through repetition.
He is a shooter, and the injury kept him from shooting a basketball for about five weeks. He has slowly regained his strength and, perhaps just as importantly, his confidence.
"It's tough as a shooter to aim long, or to shoot it long every time," Olynyk said. "You want to be able to shoot it free and easy, and today it was coming off free and easy. I was shooting the same shots I was shooting before, and I had a little more strength."
Avery Bradley had 22 points and a season-high nine rebounds for the Celtics, and Amir Johnson continued his strong stretch by tallying 11 points and 11 rebounds.
"He's doing everything for us," Thomas said of Johnson. "He's running the floor, he's defending, he's playing with a lot of energy. I don't know what it is. He's definitely helping us though, and we're loving it."
With the win, the Celtics moved back into a virtual tie for third place in the Eastern Conference with the Heat and the Hawks. The Hornets, who grabbed an impressive win over the Spurs on Monday, are lurking just a half-game back. It is becoming increasingly likely that these four teams will be matched up against one another in a pair of first-round playoff series, but the Celtics, of course, are not thinking that far ahead.
After this win, they had immediately turned their focus to Wednesday's game against the division-leading Raptors, who are 3-0 against Boston this season.
"We definitely want to beat them," Johnson said, "and show them before these playoffs start we can beat this team."
The Celtics missed their first seven shots Monday, but that is mostly where the struggles subsided. They outscored Orlando in each of the first three quarters and began to pull away by shooting 72.2 percent from the field in the third.
With 10:48 left in the game a 3-pointer by Olynyk gave the Celtics their largest lead, 94-80. The Magic slowly chipped away, as a 17-footer by Victor Oladipo (25 points) made it 98-94 with 2:49 remaining. But Bradley kept Orlando at arm's length, as he scored on a strong drive to the basket and then drilled a 21-footer, and Boston held on for the win.
"I do think that playing this fifth game in seven nights has been a tough stretch emotionally in a lot of ways, losing some guys and losing some games," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "This one was going to be hard anyway because, to be quite candid, other than the game here, they have outplayed us all year. This was going to be a dogfight."