The encouraging aspect of the Celtics’ three-game winning streak, other than the fact they have returned to above .500 and gained back some respectability, is they haven’t played their best basketball in this stretch.
They labored at times offensively against the shorthanded Clippers on Tuesday night, with Jayson Tatum unable to spark his team and Jaylen Brown mostly silent after a 14-point opening quarter.
The Celtics were able to hang on because they are getting contributions from complementary players, as coach Brad Stevens is beginning to develop trust in his reserves and shape a more productive rotation.
The 117-112 win at TD Garden was rewarding because Tatum and Brown, overworked through the first half of the season, combined for just 9 points in the second half. They didn’t need to save the Celtics against a quality opponent. Instead, the Celtics relied on third-year center Robert Williams, who continues to impress each time he’s on the floor.
On Tuesday night, it was alley-oop dunks, tough rebounds against burly Ivica Zubac and a streaking strip-block of Terance Mann that caused a turnover.
“He’s on a great trajectory,” Stevens said of Williams. “He’s really helping us. Sometimes what isn’t talked about enough is he’s a competitor. He wants to win. He plays hard, goes after rebounds, and he’s learning how to take advantage of the things he does best on both ends of the floor.”
In addition, the Celtics’ defense was stellar in the second half after it appeared Paul George would be the latest player to drop 40 points on the Celtics. The job was easier with Kawhi Leonard a late scratch because of back spasms and Marcus Morris leaving in the second quarter because of a concussion, but the Clippers still had quality, professional scorers.
The Celtics limited the Clippers to 41.9 percent shooting in the second half, including 4 of 14 from George, who scored just 11 of his 32 points after halftime.
This was a game the Celtics of the past few weeks likely would have lost because neither Tatum nor Brown carried the offense. The continued ascension of Kemba Walker, along with a combined 27 points from Williams and Payton Pritchard, enabled the Celtics to beat one of the NBA’s deepest teams for the second time in a month.
“We’ve definitely played with more intent to win,” Brown said. “A little bit less complacency at times. We’ve played some great basketball in spots in the previous three games, but we just didn’t do it consistently enough. We’re putting together better overall games.”
For as much as the Celtics have dropped games to non-elite teams — Hawks (twice), Wizards, Knicks, Pelicans, Pistons (twice), Kings — they have two wins over the Clippers, two each over the Raptors and Pacers, and wins over the Bucks, Heat, Nuggets, and Warriors. The Celtics are proving to their capabilities against quality teams when they are focused and the bench is playing confidently.
Stevens is relying on generally inexperienced players to produce, and for the most part it’s working. Pritchard hit four 3-pointers and scored 14 points in 23 minutes. It’s reached a point where little the rookie from Oregon does is surprising, and defenses are going to allow him to shoot when Tatum, Brown and/or Walker are on the floor.
In one first-half sequence, Clippers guard Lou Williams saw Pritchard at the 3-point line with the ball and didn’t even bother to close out. Pritchard burned him with a swished three. It’s the type of execution that hadn’t been prevalent before this three-game winning streak.
“We’ve been playing well. We’ve been playing tough, not letting little things affect us throughout the course of the game,” Walker said. “We’ve been encouraging each other, picking each other up. Just being an overall great teammate, and that’s been the difference.”
Just a week ago, Stevens challenged his team, saying the four games prior to the All-Star break were the most important of the season. The Celtics have won three, with the remaining game against the COVID-protocol-ravaged Raptors, who may be missing five rotation players for Thursday’s matchup.
It’s a testament to how quickly a season can turn. The Celtics lost terribly in Atlanta a week ago, as something appeared very wrong with how this team was mentally approaching games. And they have responded with three gutsy wins against teams that pushed them to the limit, which will be beneficial in the long run.
“The two things that they’ve done is they’ve stayed together where they easily could have been pulled apart by the noise,” Stevens said. “You have to be able to resist that at this level when you’re going through the roller coaster of a season. And the second thing is we’ve slept in our bed for five straight days. We’re fresher. We look better. We look more like ourselves, and I don’t think you can discount that, either.
“We didn’t play our best throughout a big stretch. We’re one bounce away from not being 3-0 in our last three games. But you can’t be your best when you’re pulling apart.”