Led by a scoring surge from Paul Pierce and a renewed effort on defense, the Boston Celtics are healthy and looking again like one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference.
Pierce will try to move into second place on the franchise’s all-time scoring list when the Celtics welcome the lowly Charlotte Bobcats on Tuesday night.
After a slow start and being hampered by injuries, Boston (13-10) has won four straight and eight of nine, including 98-80 over Memphis on Sunday.
Kevin Garnett matched his season high with 24 points and grabbed nine rebounds while Rajon Rondo, playing his second game after missing eight with a wrist injury, tied a season best with 14 assists.
The Celtics’ turnaround is unsurprising to Pierce, who missed the first three games with a bruised heel.
“I think a lot of it has to do with us getting healthy,” he said. “We were just a rusty group at the beginning of the year. … We probably used those first eight to 10 games as a tune up, but I think now we’ve finally flipped the switch where we’re playing more consistent ball.”
Pierce scored 21 points Sunday to move nine behind Hall of Famer Larry Bird for second place on the club’s scoring list. Pierce is averaging 23.4 points over the last nine games – up from the 14.6 in his first 11.
While the healthier lineup has helped the team offensively, Boston also credits it for the improvement on the other end of the court. Over the last nine games, opponents are averaging 81.2 points on 38.8 percent shooting against the Celtics, who have the second-best scoring defense in the NBA at 86.7 points per game.
“Defense is key the last three weeks for us,” coach Doc Rivers said. “Our guys have bought into it.”
The Celtics should have little trouble putting up those kinds of defensive numbers against Charlotte (3-21), which has dropped 11 straight while averaging 83.0 points.
Following losses to the Los Angeles Lakers and Portland by a combined 77 points, the league-worst Bobcats are coming off a 95-89 defeat at Phoenix on Sunday that dropped them to 1-13 on the road.
Charlotte led by six at the half and pushed the advantage to 10 early in the third quarter, but it scored just 17 points in the fourth to allow Phoenix to rally.
Kemba Walker scored 22 points and Reggie Williams added 21, but they combined for just four in the fourth quarter, when Charlotte shot 35.3 percent.
“We just missed some shots that we should have made and they came down, executed their offense and they made shots,” Walker said. “They really just outplayed us in the fourth quarter.”
Williams made his third appearance and first start with the Bobcats after signing in December. Bismack Biyombo, the seventh overall pick in the 2011 draft who was acquired in a trade with Sacramento, made his first start and had 11 points and 12 rebounds for his second double-double.
Charlotte is closing a four-game road trip before returning home to face three teams leading their respective divisions in Chicago, the Los Angeles Clippers and Philadelphia.
The Bobcats have won their last two meetings with the Celtics, holding them to fewer than 90 points in each.