While Boston's core of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo remains one of the more prominent in the game, the Celtics are proving to be much more than a three-man show.
Boston tries to extend its season-high winning streak to five Friday night against the visiting Houston Rockets, who found themselves in a similar stretch before a disappointing loss their last time out.
Since dropping a season-worst four in a row, the Celtics (18-17) have strung together four consecutive victories while giving up 82.8 points per game. That defensive prowess was on full display Wednesday in an 87-79 win over Phoenix, which was limited to 39.3 percent shooting and committed 16 turnovers.
Boston, though, also struggled to get much going offensively and managed just 34 points in the second half. Jeff Green, Jason Terry and rookie Jared Sullinger combined for 39 points as the bench carried the offense, scoring 47 points on 59.4 percent shooting, compared to 40 and 36.7 from the starters.
"We just gotta keep defending the way we're defending. Keep doing what we're doing, but getting better at it," coach Doc Rivers said. "(Wednesday) night, we won the game but I didn't necessarily think we played great. ... Our starters have to be better every night, not just the bench."
Sullinger in particular has given Boston a huge boost of late. The former Ohio State standout, listed at 6-foot-9 and 260 pounds, grabbed a season-high 16 rebounds Wednesday and leads the team with 14.4 boards per 48 minutes. He's also scored in double figures in five of his last nine games.
"Obviously his timing, body positioning. He has the perfect body for rebounding," Garnett told the Celtics' official website. "He can take the pounding and bump a little bit and he has great anticipation when it comes to the ball, and he has great hands. Put all that in the pot, you got Jared Sullinger. That's what makes him great."
Sullinger now looks to keep things going against a Rockets team that's taken four of five in this series - including a 101-89 victory Dec. 14. Pierce, who scored 18 points on 5-of-18 shooting in that game, has gone 21 for 61 (34.4 percent) from the field in his last four matchups against Houston (21-15).
The Rockets entered Wednesday having won five straight and 10 of 12 before coming up well short of their league-leading scoring average of 106.0 in an 88-79 loss at New Orleans. They're still in sixth place in the Western Conference and on pace for their most wins since 2008-09, the franchise's last playoff team.
"I think the energy that James Harden has brought to the team and city, has really enthused them," Pierce said. "A lot of people think they're overachieving, but they're right there with some of the better teams in the Western Conference."
Against the Hornets, Houston, which gave up 16 offensive boards, took a 10-point lead into the fourth quarter but was outscored 29-10 over the final 12 minutes. It was 4 of 19 (21.1 percent) in the fourth - its worst-shooting period of the season.
"Any time a team gets that many offensive rebounds it's going to be hard to run," Rockets coach and former Celtics star Kevin McHale said. "We were not sharp. We couldn't get anything going in that fourth quarter and it just ballooned from there."
Harden was the only player to reach double figures with 25 points, but he committed a career worst-tying seven of the team's 23 turnovers. He had 21 points on 6-of-17 shooting against the Celtics last month.
Houston, which finished with its fewest points of the season Wednesday, has gone 3-9 when scoring 98 points or fewer.
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