ORLANDO — After reflecting over the past 48 hours, discussing how they could improve, play full games, and build chemistry, the Celtics needed some semblance of success, regardless of the opponent.
And after an uneven first half in which the Celtics trailed by 2 points, guard Dennis Schröder kept repeating in the Amway Center visitors’ locker room, “We’ve got to win. We’ve just got to get a win.”
While they were erratic offensively, the Celtics won on Wednesday night with defense. After allowing 12 field goals in the first quarter, the Celtics yielded just 15 the rest of the way in stifling the Magic, 92-79, for their first win in nine days.
The past two days had been difficult for the Celtics after Monday night’s meltdown against the Bulls, in which they were outscored by 28 points in the fourth quarter. Marcus Smart then made headlines by commenting that stars Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum needed to “pass the ball more.”
Brown, who led the Celtics with 28 points against the Magic, said there needed to be a sense of urgency. The players met privately before a team dinner with coaches and discussed the most productive way to move forward.
“Obviously, in the midst of trying to win games, you know, it’s something that we probably didn’t need,” Brown said of Smart’s comments. “We all communicate and talk to each other and we’re all trying to find ways to win. I’m open to any and everything and I’m always watching film trying to better myself, be a better basketball player.”
Smart’s comments were piercing to his teammates, but the Celtics responded by playing a solid game. They punished a lesser team defensively, and had just enough offense to make it an easy night.
There have been few easy nights in the season’s first two weeks. The Celtics have been wildly inconsistent, have faltered down the stretch of close games, and capped it Monday squandering a 19-point, third-quarter lead.
Brown said something needed to be said.
“Just an opportunity to talk as a group, get some communication going, and move forward,” he said. “We’ve been playing basketball together for a long time, all of us, especially our core group. It’s all about trying to find ways to win and that’s what most of the conversation was about.”
A 16-0 spurt to begin the third quarter allowed the Celtics to take control, and they won for the third time in five games on the road. Al Horford finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds. Tatum continued his offensive struggles, missing 12 of 16 shots in scoring 14 points.
But the game was never in doubt after the third quarter, allowing the Celtics to sport some smiles in the closing minutes. There also was a sense of relief. The Celtics hadn’t won since Oct. 25, and pressure was mounting from inside and outside.
“I felt like we played well and deserved to win in a few of the games we lost late,” coach Ime Udoka said. “Just a matter of staying with it this time. That was the message: Start good, finish well. I kept telling them, ‘Don’t be complacent, we’ve been here before. We’ve given up leads in a lot of games.’ We’re progressing well, playing more to our standards.”
Udoka said he thought his team played a solid 2½ quarters against the Bulls before everything fell apart. The carryover Wednesday was a below-average opening quarter as the youthful Magic scored nine of their 12 field goals in the paint.
The Magic led, 39-31, three minutes into the second quarter before the Celtics countered with a 29-7 run, including the first 16 points of the third quarter. Brown, Tatum, and Robert Williams scored all the points in that run, and the Celtics were able to stave off any rallies and led by as many as 23 in the fourth.
The Celtics weren’t efficient offensively, but they didn’t need to be. They held the Magic to 21.1 percent shooting in the second half, packing the paint and forcing Orlando to take jumpers late in the shot clock.
Udoka said the defensive effort was what was most satisfying because that’s what he’s been trying to emphasize since the start of training camp.
During the game, the bench was filled with conversations between players as they attempt to build chemistry. Brown and Tatum were joking. Smart was exchanging ideas with Schröder. Aaron Nesmith even came off the bench and made his first basket of the season.
There hadn’t been many reasons for the Celtics to enjoy themselves this season, but Horford said there was a sense of relief after what had been a difficult few days.
“The pressure feels like it mounts for us,” Horford said. “As hard as it is, if you’re not playing the right way, if you’re not doing everything you need to do, you’ll get humbled. It’s been hard for us. We’ve shown progress. We’ve shown things, quite not where we want to be. Tonight it was just nice to come out and put a good game together and get a win.”