Any way that a bad losing streak is ended is the perfect way, as long as it’s over. The Celtics, however, needed a game like Friday against the Indiana Pacers, a team they’ll likely spend the rest of the season battling for a playoff seed.
The 118-112 win at TD Garden wasn’t easy. The Pacers didn’t play particularly well but they pushed the Celtics to the final minute and Boston was able to maintain the lead despite difficult nights from Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.
There has been too much pressure on the All-Star duo to carry the Celtics back to prosperity and they have been sputtering lately. Each looks as if they will definitely enjoy the week of rest for the All-Star Break — besides playing in the game.
But it was high time the rest of the Celtics compensated for their slippage. Well-rested Kemba Walker, with two days to rest his knees, tallied 32 points on a vintage night, and it’s a performance the Celtics are going to need more often if they are to really compete in the Eastern Conference.
Yet, perhaps the biggest surprise was the 14 points from struggling veteran guard Jeff Teague, who was also one of the lone bright spots in that debacle Wednesday against the Atlanta Hawks.
The season has been ghastly for Teague, who was signed a minimum deal to stabilize the backup point guard shot and offer Walker some relief. Instead, Teague, 32, has struggled to score, spending most of the season as a better 3-pointer than 2-point shooter. What’s more, he has converted just 30.7 percent of his 2-point shots (his career average is 47.1) and he began playing tentatively a few weeks ago, and Brad Stevens benched him.
Before making a surprising start in Atlanta, Teague had not played in six of the Celtics’ previous eight games. There have been questions as to whether the club should just release him and bring in another low-priced point guard. But Teague has quieted those murmurs, at least for a few days.
He reached the free throw line eight times Friday, and looked as comfortable as he has all season. There were a couple of silly turnovers but he finished the game a plus-14, increasing the confidence of his coach.
“I was really happy for Jeff,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “This has not been an easy transition for him. He didn’t play the way he wanted to and didn’t feel good about it. He’s put in as much work as any of our young players in the last two weeks and I think that’s showing.”
Teague is a former All-Star who was on the cusp of being a top 10 point guard during his prime with the Hawks. He’s bounced around from Indiana to Minnesota back to Atlanta briefly over the past few years. So he’s become a journeyman.
Boston was supposed to be the place he could revive his career, carve out a valuable bench role and help a team with championship aspirations. But his putrid early play mixed with the emergence of Payton Pritchard took away Teague’s role and minutes.
Instead of sulking, Teague said he went back to the gym to put in extra work. He said he knew rust was going to be a factor because he hadn’t played in a competitive game in more than 10 months when he joined the club. He was a member of the eight teams that were excluded from the NBA bubble — as was teammate Tristan Thompson who has also warmed up as the season progressed.
“It’s been a different experience than I’ve ever been a part of but it’s always a learning experience, take the good with the bad,” he said. “I knew it would be an adjustment period. I didn’t think it would be like this but you learn. I think those DNPs just made me want to go a little harder. So I just tried to get some extra reps in and I’m going to continue to keep doing that.”
Teague attributes his struggles to the inactivity. There’s only so much you can work on playing pickup or in drills while the rest of the league is in the bubble playing real games. It appeared during this stretch that Teague lost his confidence and he was passing up shots and just dribbling into the paint with no intention of shooting. That’s when he lost his playing time.
“The NBA is so much faster than playing pick up at home or one-on-one,” he said. “Honestly, I was just trying to be aggressive. That’s the only way I can play. I wasn’t aggressive in those first games and it got me DNPs so I said when I get a chance I’ll try to be aggressive, making something happen.”
Teague can be a real asset in leadership and guidance because of his experience, He has grown close to Walker and also Pritchard, and Stevens has found ways to play the two together on the floor and their minutes have been effective.
Teague said the team chemistry is not suffering during this skid. What’s more, it may have improved.
“This team is a great group,” he said. “We believe. You just go through those stretches in the season. I think we’re just in that bump in the road. I think the locker room is getting even closer. It’s pretty amazing how the losses bring you closer than the wins do. That’s what happened with our group.”