Close losses to good teams are what they are. They’re still losses, and they still count. Moral victories aren’t victories at all. Injuries aren’t excuses, excuses are notes you bring to work or school when you missed a day. However, the Celtics are trending up. They are improving, overall, and in a few key categories. What you see on the surface isn’t always what you see when you dig a little deeper.

Process Over Results

No, this isn’t Sam Hinke writing his. I’m not talking about tanking, or anything of the sort. Brad Stevens has talked before about the process of getting better every day and playing together. About making progress, and about worrying about those two things and not worrying about the results. The cliche is that the results will take care of themselves.

“I’m not focused on being results oriented,” Stevens said before a preseason game last week. “I’m more focused on that process and that progress. We’re going to stick to it. That’s been good to us as far as creating a good environment for growth. That’s where we’ll stay. I’m not worried about it. ”

But this is true. The results do take care of themselves. While the Celtics may not appear to the casual observer like they’re starting to play better, they are. And the wins will come.

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Jonas Jerebko drives past Hassan Whiteside. Credit: Naddie Meyer / Getty Images

The Celtics are playing better in the month of December, than they had in the months of October and November. From celticsblog’s Bill Sly:

There’s also the numbers. In November, the Celtics posted a net rating of 1. 2 (106. 5 OffRtg, 105. 3 DefRtg). In their six December games, they’ve improved their defense to 101. 6. Glass half emptiers have pointed to the lack of production from the bench, but that’s trending up, too. Rookie Jaylen Brown has strung together a bunch of productive games in a row and is now a reliable contributer. Terry Rozier has had a few bad shooting nights, but he’s a reliable back up point guard that doesn’t turnover the ball and defends and rebounds his position. Jonas Jerebko has re-established himself as a change of pace big that can stretch the floor with his 45% shooting from the behind the arc. Kelly Olynyk hasn’t found his range yet, but he’s become much more comfortable putting the ball on the floor and being a distributor.

The Celtics net rating in December is up too, not just their defensive rating. Their net rating has improved from a 1. 2 to a 3. 4. While still not yet a stellar number, it’s good for 13th in that span, it’s an improvement. And if this improvement continues, then the Celtics will start to win more games.

Rebounding is Getting Better

Much has been made of the Celtics rebounding difficulties this season. However, that too is a number that looks prettier on paper in December than it did in November.

The Celtics had a DREB% of 73. 5 in November. That number is up to 76. 9 in December. Their overall rebounding rate is up from 47. 5 to 48. 8. The Celtics are starting to rebound the ball better. I am sure that the return of Al Horford and Jae Crowder is a big reason for that improvement. And, by the way, the Celtics are 7-3 in the 10 games Crowder, Horford, and Thomas have played together.

Ball Movement is Improving

The Celtics ball movement has improved too. Ball movement is a misleading term in some ways. It isn’t solely about passing the ball. Or how many times you pass the ball in a game, or in a given possession. It’s about passing with purpose, as Scal would say on a CSNNE broadcast. Ball movement is about creating an opening in the defense, and passing the ball to a teammate who can exploit that opening. Whether that’s by driving and kicking out, or running a pick and roll and then swinging the ball side to side. It’s about generating points off of ball movement, not about settling for contested threes. (Threes aren’t inherently bad, it’s how you get them that matters and how open they are when you take them.contested threes early in the shot clock are bad threes. Open threes off of penetration and ball movement are good threes.)

The Celtics assist percentage, assist to turnover ratio, and assist ratio are all better this month. The AST% rose from 62. 5 to 67. 4. The Celtics’ assist to turnover ratio improved from 2. 02 to 2. 07. Their assist ratio improved from 18. 1 to 19. 4. The Celtics’ assist percentage is good for 3rd in the NBA in that span, as is the assist ratio. (Assist percentage is the number of field goals that ended in an assist, over the total number of field goals. ~47 is around the worst in the NBA, and ~71 is the best. Also, assist ratio is the number of possessions that end in an assist, over the total number of possessions. ~13 is bottom of the barrel, ~21 is top of the league. )

Results

At the end of the day professional basketball is very much a results oriented business. The Celtics, when all is said and done, will be what their record says they are. However, there is still a long way to go. At some point expectations may have to shift. This team may not be as good as we thought they would be.

The Celtics need to get some quality wins under their belts. The also need to start executing at the ends of games. This post was not meant to deflect legitimate criticisms or concerns.

It was, however, meant to add perspective. The Celtics are 7-3 when Horford, Crowder, and Thomas are all playing. While every team in the league will suffer injuries throughout the course of an 82 game season, I’m not sure any team has missed as much time from their starting lineup as the Celtics have.

Whether the Celtics are better than they have played so far remains to be seen. However, they are moving in the right direction. If they can continue to improve rebounding, moving the ball, defensively, and improve overall we should see the improvement reflected in results eventually.