The coherent theme following Monday’s 140-129 comeback win over the Charlotte Hornets was that this is not last year. The Celtics’ late response was different than in the recent past, and it was noticeable.
Despite trailing by 12 points with six minutes left, the Celtics did not allow frustration to set in. They instead responded with stellar defense, clutch shooting, rim protection and, of course, some clutch plays from Marcus Smart.
The victory was the Celtics’ second straight after two disappointing losses, and this streak has injected confidence and bravado into a team that wants to change its image and perception.
Smart, who battled stomach issues and a migraine to play Monday, said there was no way the Celtics would have pulled that game out last year. And he’s right. Charlotte hit 13 3-pointers in the first half and constantly countered the Celtics with big buckets, including a 13-2 run after the Celtics cut the deficit to 101-100 with 10:35 left.
What was disappointing about Friday’s loss to Toronto was not that the Celtics lost, it was that they laid down when the Raptors applied pressure. Three nights later, some astute coaching from Ime Udoka — intentionally fouling poor free-throw shooter Mason Plumlee — and an offensive flurry put the Hornets on their heels.
The Celtics scored 6 points in a 23-second span, cutting the deficit to 117-114, and they were a fully engaged team with all the momentum.
Udoka, early in his tenure, speaks in basketball. He offers details about what the Celtics did or didn’t do to execute in particular games. But between the basketball talk are honest assessments of his team, and a no-nonsense style that expects efficiency.
“We want to build some cohesion with the group and that will come when guys are finally healthy,” he said. “But the spirit overall is what we’re talking about. I think the Toronto game was an aberration. We played hard in the preseason and every day in training camp. They’re going hard at each other in practice. We’re building on that, playing the way we want them to, sharing the ball offensively. But also playing hard, trying to get that defensive mindset down.
“I preach it every night, that we’ve got to do it on that end. We scored a ton of points in the first half. If we can buckle down defensively, we know we’re going to score enough points to be in good shape every night.”
The Toronto loss caused major concern because of the effort level, in the season’s second game. But what is being revealed this season is that most of the elite teams are being blown out early, a byproduct of an abbreviated preseason.
Portland, Phoenix, Milwaukee, and Brooklyn have all suffered losses of at least 23 points. The Lakers lost their first two games. The Knicks lost at home to the Magic. The Nuggets were beaten by 12 at home by Cleveland.
The Celtics considered the Toronto game their mulligan. And they maintain they are not the same team as last year. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown combined for 71 points, but Udoka, Tatum, and Brown wanted to talk about the contributions of Smart and Dennis Schröder, who scored 9 points in overtime.
“Different group. We’ve got a lot of resilient guys,” Brown said. “Dennis played well. Marcus Smart was terrific, by the way, especially at the end of the game. He might not get credit for having a great game, but defensively, he definitely won that game for us. Dennis is a starter in this league, we know that. He’s had some great seasons in this league and despite all the controversy, he played well for us.
“We look forward to powering him and Smart and getting after it on the defensive end, and we can really be a good team.”
What is important is for the Celtics to find that dependable third scorer behind Tatum and Brown, something that was a major issue last season. Schröder had 23 points on 6-for-14 shooting against Charlotte, including four 3-pointers. Most of his shots were open, which is going to happen with Tatum and Brown on the floor.
“Committee would work well because [Tatum and Brown] draw so much attention,” Udoka said. “But we know what we have with Dennis coming off the bench. He’s going to have his time with the ball in his hands. He’s been getting great looks; 6 for 14 isn’t terrible, but the amount of open looks that he missed, that he’s going to start knocking down. He really hasn’t found a full rhythm yet. We know what he is. He was this in Oklahoma City a few years ago, a guy who came off the bench and scored 20 points a game and finished the game. We view him as the same thing [here].”
Schröder could indeed be the difference this year, but Monday showed that there are several differences between this year and the past.