During this rocky season the Celtics have sometimes followed promising moments with new low points. But they are almost whole for the first time, and over the last two games they have at least shown glimpses of hope.
On Sunday, they took another minor step toward righting this odd year by walloping the Charlotte Hornets, 116-86. With the victory, Boston climbed back to .500, at 25-25.
Jayson Tatum had 22 points and Jaylen Brown and Evan Fournier added 17 apiece. The lopsided score allowed Tatum and Brown to watch the entire fourth quarter from the bench. The Hornets, who entered the game alone in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, were considerably shorthanded, missing starters Gordon Hayward and LaMelo Ball, as well as key reserve Malik Monk.
Observations from the game:
▪ Fournier’s 0-for-10 Celtics debut was just last Monday, but it now seems like ages ago. After drilling six consecutive 3-pointers in Boston’s win over the Rockets on Friday, Fournier connected on all three of his first-half attempts from beyond the arc Sunday—including a four-point play—giving him nine in a row.
Fournier’s impact goes beyond those long-range barrages, though.
“There’s a lot of things he does,” coach Brad Stevens said. “No. 1, he’s a guy who can put the ball in the basket, and the other team knows that. So they have to put one of their better defenders on him. It all has a trickle-down effect, and I just think that’s why we need as many guys that can do that as possible and still be able to play together and be able to play with the right flow, the right pace and everything else. So he’s been great the last two games.”
Stevens added that Fournier does not force shots, but that the Celtics need to do an even better job of creating open looks for him.
▪ The Celtics tied their season high with 35 assists in Friday’s win over the Rockets and then registered 29 Sunday, tied for the fifth most this season. Stevens believes the better assist numbers are the result of a recent point of emphasis.
“The last two games moving the ball has been good,” he said. “I think what we’ve really been trying to emphasize–more cutting, more off-the-ball cuts, more movement in the last four weeks or so. We’ve had some growing pains along the way, but for the most part, it’s been pretty good offensively.”
▪ The Celtics have not had their entire roster available all season. But with the looming returns of Tristan Thompson (COVID-19 protocols) and Semi Ojeleye (side strain), Boston could soon be operating at full strength. The addition of Fournier and the emergence of Robert Williams have also brightened the outlook a bit.
And that’s part of the reason Stevens struck an optimistic tone after this win. He ended the last two answers of his postgame news conference with subtle hints of confidence. After pointing out that all of this team’s goals remain on the table, he said it just needs to focus on continuing to improve. “And if we do, we might be tough to beat,” he said.
And when he was asked about the significance of Sunday’s win, he said he was encouraged by the recent intensity level.
“The goal would be that we can be a handful,” he said. “I don’t know what that means, but we could be hard to beat. That’s what we’ll keep shooting for.”
▪ The Celtics’ focus on a long-range attack rolled on. Boston attempted 54 3-pointers and 41 two-pointers. Its five highest 3-point attempt totals this year have all come since March 21. The arrival of Fournier will continue to skew this statistic a bit, but it has clearly become an emphasis.
“Just really making quick decisions, I think that’s been the difference,” Kemba Walker said. “Either you shoot it, drive it or pass it. Just making a quick decision. For us, it’s been the 3-ball. When guys come off the screen and you see a big back, you have to take the opportunity to get that shot up when it’s there.”
It had to be an encouraging sign for the Celtics that they took a 58-43 lead to halftime Sunday despite the fact that Walker and Tatum combined to go 0 for 12 from beyond the arc. The rest of the team was 10 for 15.
▪ Former Celtics point guard Terry Rozier had a fast start, drilling a pair of early 3-pointers as his team surged to an early 18-9 lead. But that was mostly where the good vibes ended for Charlotte. Without their second-, third- and fifth-leading scorers, the Hornets simply didn’t have enough firepower to keep up with the Celtics, who outscored them, 49-25, over the rest of the half. Charlotte entered the night in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, but it certainly feels like a considerable stumble is coming due to their key absences.