For much of this season the Celtics’ close games have ultimately regressed into disappointments. Rallies have sputtered, big shots have been missed, and coaches and players have been left searching for answers rather than celebrating grit.
Entering Wednesday’s game against the Knicks, Boston had played a league-high 32 clutch games — a matchup that is within 5 points in the final five minutes — and the results mostly had been ghastly.
The Celtics were outscored by an average of 13.1 points per 100 possessions in these situations, and their record was 11-21. But perhaps these last two close games have provided signs of hope, or even just a needed boost of confidence.
In wins over the Knicks and Timberwolves, the Celtics held a plus-38.0 net rating in the clutch. During these late segments they shot 55 percent from the field, 54.5 percent from beyond the 3-point line, and 90 percent from the free-throw line.
“We’re playing and finishing them out, staying the course,” guard Marcus Smart said after Friday night’s 145-136 overtime win against Minnesota. “We had some plays that could really have turned for us, and we couldn’t win down the road we’ve been going down. We just continued to talk and I think tell one another that we’ve got to keep going and just keep fighting through whatever adversity is in front of us.”
This small spurt does not mean the season has been saved, of course. The Timberwolves have the worst record in the NBA, the Knicks are below .500, and both games were played at TD Garden. Also, while the Celtics sparkled in overtime Friday, the only reason they reached that point was because they coughed up an 11-point lead with less than three minutes left in regulation.
These games were not perfect, but they included moments to build on.
“For us to be able to stand tight with that and hold the fort down and not let it get too out of control and still come back to win both of those games is something that we haven’t been able to do,” Smart said. “And it feels good to do. We’ve just got to continue to keep it rolling.”
Against New York, the Celtics clawed back from a 7-point fourth-quarter deficit. The game’s defining shot came in the final minute when All-Star forward Jayson Tatum was about to face a double team and whipped a pass to Smart, who has been maligned for his late-games struggles and shot selection this season. He calmly drilled the 3-pointer in this case, though.
Against Minnesota, Boston climbed out of a 17-point third-quarter hole behind Tatum. Although Tatum made his second consecutive All-Star team this season, his year has been somewhat uneven. In this game, he erupted for 53 points on 16-for-25 shooting, perhaps a sign he is ready to carry this team down the stretch the way superstars tend to do.
“[Tatum’s performance] was a lot like what I recall about Isaiah [Thomas] on many occasions,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “He just wouldn’t let us lose. Tatum was like that. When we were coming back in the third, you could see he had it. And guys did a good job finding him.”
Now, the Celtics will find out if this mini-burst is the start of a trend or just a positive blip during an otherwise confounding season. On Sunday night they will begin a three-game road trip that includes games against the Nuggets, Blazers, and Lakers.
This season, Boston is just 4-7 against the teams currently in the top eight in the Western Conference standings. Those four wins included one against the Clippers without Paul George, another against the Clippers without Kawhi Leonard, one against the Grizzlies without Ja Morant, and one against the Nuggets without five rotation players.
Denver and Portland are mostly healthy now. Lakers star Anthony Davis could return from his calf strain this week, although LeBron James is expected to remain out with a sprained ankle.
“[We need to] build off this, these last two games,” Tatum said. “We’ve got three really good teams coming up.”