Wednesday’s game against the Charlotte Hornets was critically important only if the Celtics really thought it was. The question was how they would react to their listless home loss to the downtrodden Oklahoma City Thunder the previous night.
The answer was inspired, and the effort was spearheaded by a rookie who has proven that he doesn’t know anything besides playing hard and providing maximum effort.
The Celtics learned a good lesson in their 120-111 win. They learned the importance of getting off to good starts, evidenced by a 20-point first quarter lead they would never relinquish, and they learned they do have the resiliency to stave off a charging opponent, even shorthanded.
About two hours prior to tipoff, the NBA suspended Marcus Smart for a Tuesday post-game verbal exchange with official James Williams, in which Williams said he wasn’t intimidated by Smart and Smart essentially said “prove it,” according to an NBA source.
That would leave the Celtics without another key player as Kemba Walker was also sidelined for a second consecutive game. But instead of lamenting the absences, feeling sorry about the Oklahoma City effort or splintering in the locker room, the Celtics responded with one of their better quarters of the season and then three solid quarters that included some key plays down the stretch.
While Jaylen Brown (38 points) and Jayson Tatum (35 points) combined for 73 points and offered a strong response to Brown’s postgame assertions Tuesday that the Celtics lacked “urgency,” rookie Aaron Nesmith harnessed his frenetic style into his best game as a professional.
The Celtics need players who are going to play hard, get back on defense and not consume themselves with officiating. Nesmith is too young and inexperienced to concern himself with bad calls or non fouls. His 15 points, 9 rebounds, 3 blocked shots and 3 steals were essential to Boston’s victory.
Charlotte came to within 3 after a Terry Rozier 3-pointer before Nesmith countered with a 3-pointer that sparked a 15-3 game-clinching run. It was a crucial win for a team that appeared bewildered after Tuesday’s loss.
They had lost their previous three games, with the previous two defeats including some questionable effort and fortitude. These weren’t issues on Wednesday.
The Celtics played a shaky final three quarters because they were shorthanded and the Hornets increased their defensive intensity. Charlotte was the perfect test for the Celtics, a relentless team filled with speed and athleticism.
“It wasn’t as bad as advertised,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said of the Oklahoma City loss after watching a replay. “We came in, put our focus on Charlotte, didn’t even mention it and got ready to play. We were upset that we didn’t get the win (Tuesday) and we were upset that we didn’t play as well as we can. We knew we’d be able to turn the page at least. It doesn’t mean you’re going to win”
But it does mean the Celtics will be more successful with this type of effort on a nightly basis. And it was heartening for the veterans to watch Nesmith, who has progressed slowly over his rookie season, play as if it were his last game.
“He played extremely hard; his energy is always good whether playing or not,” Brown said of Nesmith. “He works his [expletive] off and he’s stepping into his opportunity and he’s playing well. He makes [mistakes] sometimes but he makes mistakes going 100 percent and I’ll take that.”
The Celtics bench has been maligned all season but Stevens had no choice but to dig deep into his group of reserves because of the absence of Smart and Walker. Little-used Tremont Waters contributed 6 points, 6 assists and 2 steals in a rare starting role. The hope is the Celtics young reserves have gained so much experience over the past few months they may be prepared to help in the postseason.
The execution of Nesmith and Waters when pressed in to heavy minutes should be a lesson to the veterans that the game should never be taken for granted. Those young guys thirst for these types of opportunities and they took full advantage and sparked a team that needed to be uplifted.
The next step for the Celtics is to build on this momentum, get healthier and gather themselves for a potential playoff run. Stevens tried downplaying the Oklahoma City loss but it was definitely a low point.
How his team responded Wednesday with a 39-point first quarter, punching first instead of having to counter, is an example they do care about winning and were prepared for the challenge.
It’s far too early to determine whether this attitude will last. But the good news is that the fight in this team is at least there. It’s going to take a collective team effort to make a deep playoff run and that includes the rookies and youngsters.
It was encouraging for the organization to see Nesmith make impact plays after what was a rough start to his NBA career. And on a night when the Celtics needed someone to emerge with maximum effort and execution, Nesmith responded.
Hopefully the whole roster adopts his energy and approach because it was a refreshing change.