BOSTON – Doc Rivers feared the Los Angeles Clippers scoring easy baskets.

“You can’t let them get behind you,” Rivers said Sunday before his Boston Celtics played the Clippers at the TD Garden. “I’m sure every team goes in against them with that goal. Very few are successful.”

For Rivers, the bridge between his players knowing what to do and being able to do it has been a difficult span to cross. For much of the first half of this season, Rivers has told his players how he wants them to play defense.

Maybe they listened, but they could not do it.

Or maybe they can do it for spurts, like in the Celtics’ 106-104 win on Sunday.

Boston led by 19 at halftime and kept it comfortable through the third quarter, before letting the Clippers back in.

“We stopped playing,” Rivers said. “That’s what happens when you turn it off.”

Back to that consistency thing.

In this space over three months ago, we quoted Rivers about his defense: “I think we have shown that when we really are focused and zeroed in, we can be really good at it. But it’s not consistent.”

That consistency is needed more than ever without All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo (knee) and rookie phenom forward Jarred Sullinger (back), both gone for the season.

“We have been through so much, guard Avery Bradley said. “We have to keep playing hard, fighting for each other.”

Bradley, who once donned the red and white of the Maine Red Claws, made the play of the game.

The Clippers had the ball, down 103-101, with 39 seconds left. Los Angeles guard Jamal Crawford dribbled, looking for his move against Bradley. Crawford drove, but Bradley had position. Crawford bumped into Bradley, who fell down as Crawford’s shot swished.

No basket. Charging foul on Crawford. Celtics’ ball.

“Jamal is a great player and I just tried to make it as hard as possible for him,” Bradley said. “The opportunity to take the charge was there, and the ref made the call.”

Yes, Paul Pierce sank a 3-pointer to ice the game with 2.5 seconds left, but it was Bradley’s play that saved the game — a defensive play.

That is what Rivers is talking about. If Boston is going to be successful — especially with its depleted roster — it has to play hard defense. Rivers is seeing positive signs.

“It’s all the little things we thought we would do earlier in the year that we’re starting to do now,” Rivers said.

“It’s taken longer than I personally thought it should have. But I’ll use (former NBA coach) Chuck Daly’s great line — sometimes you have to wait for your team. Even though you’re ready for them to do something, they may not be”

The defensive fortification began in January. Boston entered the month a mediocre 13th in the league in defense, allowing 102 points a game. In January, the Celtics led the league in defense, giving up 96 points.

And while Rivers points at overall better play on defense, the addition of Bradley — who played his first game Jan. 2, having recovered from shoulder surgeries — has certainly been a major factor.

So the Celtics are over .500 again with a four-game winning streak.

A 24-23 record is nothing to get heady about. Rivers will certainly remind his team of how they almost blew it.

“I was upset that we allowed them back in it,” Rivers said. “But we did gather ourselves.

“In my mind we can be much better than we were today.”

The cliche “it will take a team effort” has been heard a lot lately. All nine Celtics who played Sunday recorded points and at least one rebound. The bench gave Boston 52 points.

“It’s hard to beat a team that’s balanced,” Bradley said. “It’s been like that the last four wins. We have to continue to do that. We can’t take a step back. We can’t let a four-game winning streak have us get lazy.”

Lazy? That something these Celtics can never afford.

Staff Writer Kevin Thomas can be contacted at 791-6411 or at:

Twitter: KevinThomasPPH