The Celtics probably never envisioned an April game against the Knicks becoming a critical one. But this season very little has gone how this team imagined.
So there was New York on Wednesday at TD Garden, the same team that throttled the Celtics by 30 points in January, with a chance to bump Boston two games below .500 with just 20 games left in this bumpy year. The Celtics seemed to understand the stakes.
Despite missing Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier, Boston played a tough, complete game in which it executed down the stretch — a major challenge for this team — and ultimately secured a 101-99 win thanks to a last-minute 3-pointer by Marcus Smart.
“That was a what-we’re-used-to, grind-it-out, physical kind of Celtics win that I think has been what we’ve been about when we’re at our best,” coach Brad Stevens said. “I thought that we played really hard tonight.”
Jaylen Brown led the Celtics with 32 points and Jayson Tatum added 25. RJ Barrett had 29 points to lead New York. The Celtics (26-26) broke a tie for seventh place in the East with the Knicks (24-26).
The Knicks led, 85-80, with six minutes left in the fourth quarter before the Celtics went on a 9-0 run that was keyed by a Tristan Thompson block that led to a Brown fast-break layup.
After a Julius Randle dunk off a steal pulled the Knicks within 91-90 with 1:39 left, Smart missed a 3-pointer and the Knicks had a chance to push back in front. But Barrett lost control of the ball and saved it as he was falling out of bounds, leading to another Brown layup.
Barrett then tied the score at 93 with a 3-pointer, but Tatum found Smart for an open 3-pointer with 35.7 seconds left that made it 96-93. Alec Burks missed a 3-pointer on New York’s next possession, and the lead was never really in danger again despite a couple of late New York 3-pointers.
“Tonight,” Smart said, “we just made a big effort to constantly keep going no matter what happened on either end.”
Observations from the game:
⋅ Brown did not seem engaged during the Celtics’ loss to the 76ers on Tuesday, and he seemed to be aware of that Wednesday. He said that before the game he approached Tatum, his fellow All-Star, and discussed the importance of the game and their approach.
“I said, ‘Let’s come out and play basketball. Be aggressive and be the best version of ourselves,’” Brown said. “There’s so much outside noise and shifting around, I just needed to come out and be Jaylen.”
It was obvious that he was locked in. Early in the game he forced a backcourt violation, converted a tough 3-point play on a fast-break, and took a nice feed from Tatum for a powerful dunk. He seemed to be putting more of an emphasis on attacking rather than settling for jumpers. He took 12 of Boston’s 24 first-quarter shots. In addition to his big scoring night, he added 10 rebounds, 3 assists and 2 steals.
“Just being involved more, and things like that,” Brown said. “A part of that is me asserting myself, just being more aggressive.”
⋅ Thompson returned after sitting out nearly a month because of COVID-19 protocols. Stevens said before the game he expected to play Thompson in short bursts. He checked in midway through the opening quarter and immediately blocked Knicks guard Reggie Bullock at the rim. During his first stint he also drew three shooting fouls inside, a welcome addition of muscle to a Celtics frontcourt that had been reeling a bit.
After the Knicks stretched their lead to 7 points in the third quarter, Thompson and Grant Williams came in and shifted the tone with their physicality, helping spark an important 10-0 run. Thompson finished with 7 points and 8 rebounds in 22 minutes, and the Celtics outscored the Knicks by 24 points during his time on the floor.
“He brings that energy,” Smart said. “He really controls the boards for us, and he does a really good job at it. He does a really good job at getting us extra possessions, does a really good job of protecting us when we make mistakes on the defensive end. And then on the offensive end, he does a really good job at getting us those extra shots and finding guys and doing what he does best. So it’s great to have a guy like Tristan.”
⋅ With Walker resting his knee and Fournier out because of COVID-19 protocols, Romeo Langford drew his first start of the season in just his third game this year. He had a rocky beginning, committing a foul just 16 seconds into the game and then missing a 3-pointer and a baseline runner.
But he stayed involved with solid defense and hustle plays in the first half, including four offensive rebounds, two of which were followed by Celtics 3-pointers. Langford made just 5 of 37 3-pointers last season but has worked diligently on his jump-shot as he recovered from offseason wrist surgery. He was 2 for 3 from beyond the arc against the Knicks. Given his defensive capabilities, it would be a huge lift if Langford is able to become a consistent threat from the perimeter.
⋅ Tatum made some big shots and had 25 points, 10 rebounds and 5 assists, but he almost crushed the Celtics by committing eight turnovers, including five in the third quarter.
⋅ Boston dominated the offensive glass early, gobbling up second chances on 12 of its first 24 missed shots, for an offensive rebound rate of 50 percent. The Celtics entered the game ranked fourth in the league, at 29.2 percent. Sometimes offensive rebounds are just missed shots that are then followed by more missed shots. But the Celtics generally took advantage of the opportunity, holding an 18-3 edge in first-half second-chance points.