The blowout came exactly one month ago Monday, on a frigid night in Minneapolis.
The Celtics still had that new-car smell. They knew each other’s names, but little else.
They kicked off a three-game road trip against the Minnesota Timberwolves, who then kicked the Celtics out of the building, winning by 18 points — and it wasn’t even that close.
So Celtics coach Brad Stevens wanted to use Monday night’s rematch at TD Garden as a measuring stick, a gauge of how far his team had come in a month.
The Celtics won, 101-97, proving that there’s a mile-wide gap between the Celtics of then and the Celtics of now, who, by the way, have won eight of 12 and sit at 12-14 atop the Atlantic Division.
“We’re just playing as a group and we’ve finally got Brad’s offense down,” said Jared Sullinger, who scored 24 points, grabbed 11 rebounds, and added a career-high 5 assists.
“We know where people’s best spots are and we’re playing hard as a group defensively to cover up for one another’s mistakes, and I think that’s big.”
Though undersized as a team, the Celtics’ defense helped keep Minnesota star forward Kevin Love to 27 points on 26 shots, while also holding brutish Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic to 13 points and seven rebounds.
As Sullinger explained, it’s part of the Celtics’ evolution on the defensive end.
“Before, if somebody made a mistake, [we weren’t] reacting right away,” he said.
“Now, if there’s a mistake, somebody covers it up, somebody covers the other person. It’s just tremendous how fast we react.”
Stevens is a hard man to please, though. He said their game Wednesday against Detroit at TD Garden — a rematch of another Celtics’ double-digit November loss — is another measuring stick, and you can figure that their season will be paved with them from here on out in his eyes.
His take, though, after the Celtics knocked off a stout Western Conference team, one that had Boston outmatched in the post with two dominant big men?
“The take is that we’ve gotten better,” Stevens conceded.
“We’ve gotten a little bit more organized in what we’re trying to accomplish, and our guys are doing a great job of carrying it out.
“The best thing is I did not think we were great all night.”
That is, actually, a pretty big deal for the Celtics, who did indeed win when they weren’t playing their best.
At the start of the season, it seemed as though this rebuilding team with a patchwork roster (and its best player, Rajon Rondo, sidelined) had to play perfect to win, or to even give itself a chance to win.
Yet the Celtics were less than perfect against the Timberwolves, who fell to 12-13.
They were just timely.
The teams spent most of the game trading baskets, save for little runs here and there. The Celtics led by 9 in the first half and trailed by 6 in the third quarter before going ahead on a 17-4 run.
But in the fourth quarter, it started to get interesting. Inside of six minutes, neither team had led by more than 3. It was still anyone’s game.
Then Celtics guard Jordan Crawford hit a key baseline jumper with 2:52 left that tied the score at 92.
After a missed 3-pointer by the Timberwolves, Sullinger drilled a 3-pointer with 2:22 left, giving the Celtics a 95-92 lead, causing the Garden crowd to erupt.
Pekovic made a close-range bucket, trimming the Celtics’ lead to 1, and the fans chanted “De-fense” as former Northeastern guard Jose Juan Barea hoisted a 3-pointer with 24 seconds left.
He was wide right, and Sullinger, who had 15 points and six rebounds in the fourth quarter, corralled the ball. The Celtics hit their free throws and held on.
“He kind of gets everybody going because he plays so hard on both ends of the floor,” Avery Bradley (19 points) said of Sullinger. “That’s Celtics basketball, and he’s the definition of it right now. He’s playing hard at both ends of the floor.”
Love also grabbed 14 rebounds, but his team missed 11 free throws.
“We shot the ball terribly all game, myself included,” said Love, who hit just 9 of his 26 attempts from the floor. “I mean, I thought every shot I was taking was going to go in but it seemed like every one was hitting the front rim and out. That was the story of the game.”
It wasn’t the whole story; just part of it. Another part is that the Timberwolves were playing their third game in four nights and looked just a bit tired. But the Celtics played a role in Love’s off night.
Again, it came back to defense, but also just a sense of confidence, said Crawford, who scored 15.
“I know at shootaround this morning, me and [Brandon Bass] was talking — we just feel like, we know it’s going to be a tough game for the other team when they come in here or when they play against us, period,” Crawford said.
“I think it’s confidence.”
That was his response to how much the Celtics have changed since one month ago Monday, when they were blown out on that frigid night in Minneapolis.
Indeed, much has changed for the Celtics since that date — on offense, defense, everything. They know much more than each other’s names. They believe, truly, that they can win — and that’s just what they’re doing.Baxter Holmes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BaxterHolmes.