The Celtics’ progress is slow but apparent. They are far from where they want to be, but not where they were a few weeks ago.
They became the 29th NBA team to win at home this season on Wednesday,topping a Toronto team that dominated the Celtics in their TD Garden opener.
This time, they withstood the Raptors’ third-quarter run, played with more poise, and earned a 104-88 win.
Nine days ago, Marcus Smart sat at the same table following the Celtics’ painful collapse against the Chicago Bulls and implored Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to pass more to open up the offense in the fourth quarter.
Since then the Celtics are 3-1 and the average margin of victory in those three wins is 15.3 points. Their defense has improved dramatically while the offense has remained steady and productive in pivotal moments.
The Raptors cut an 16-point halftime deficit to 8 in the third quarter with the same style of physical defense that suffocated the Celtics on Oct. 22. This time, however, they were able to withstand the surge with defense of their own and key buckets from Tatum and Dennis Schröder.
“Just our demeanor,” Smart said about the difference in fighting off Toronto’s rally. “We got tired of getting our [butt] kicked and it showed. They came in last time and ran us off the floor and we made sure it didn’t happen again.”
Smart didn’t have much of a response when asked about the team’s transformation over the past nine days. His comments made headlines and the Celtics held a players’ only meeting prior to a team dinner in Orlando. That did spark something, as the Celtics are a Luka Doncic miracle shot from being undefeated since.
Either someone got to Smart and told him to keep his feelings in house, or perhaps he knew he had been a little too revealing and took a couple of steps back on his own.
“We had a great game,” he said. “We won, first home win. It was much needed. Got another one on Friday to take care of.”
He did acknowledge the improvement of the defense, which has held three of the last four opponents under 90 points. The consensus between coach Ime Udoka and the players was that defense - wildly inconsistent through the first seven games - would be critical to the team’s success. The Raptors shot 42.9 percent from the field, made 6 of 25 3-point attempts, and scored 22 points or fewer in each of the final three quarters. It was a rugged game and the Celtics exceeded Toronto’s intensity and toughness.
“We’ve been playing very well,” Smart said. “We have a lot of weapons on that end to be able to do it. We have a lot of new guys. We’re getting used to everybody, new defense. It didn’t start off well for us but we’re picking things up. Guys are coming along, the chemistry on that end is coming along. We’re doing our jobs.”
Don’t expect Smart to call out his teammates personally anymore. There have obviously been some internal discussions about that, especially when Tatum and Brown said they would have preferred Smart approach them personally.
But what Smart’s comments did was motivate the team to improve cohesion. Last year’s squad had no real internal beef, but they weren’t all that close and it showed on the floor.
“I feel like we’re coming together off the court more,” center Robert Williams said. “We’re bonding, actually finding out stuff about each other. We’re all basketball players. We’re all hoopers but we gotta build that bond, that strength of knowing that I can go to war with this guy besides me, off the court too.”
Perhaps everything new to the Celtics – new coach, new players, new system, new expectations – was just too much to digest right away. A handful of contenders such as the Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Lakers, Portland Trail Blazers, and Atlanta Hawks are off to slow starts.
It’s just a matter of how long each team takes to gel without falling too far behind in the playoff race. The Celtics are just 13 percent into the season, so their turnaround is coming just in time. Williams said the team is gathering together more often for dinners and some of the veterans have taken more of a responsibility to plan events.
In all, it seems the players have sought to take more control of their destiny and not completely rely on Udoka.
“I feel like we’ve been stepping up on [becoming closer],” Williams said. “Like I said, we’ve got to carry it over the whole year. I try to communicate with guys the whole practice. Come to attention now, let’s show we’re a brotherhood, and we’ll fight for each other.
“We need that toughness, that’s all I’m worry about right now. I’d rather go out with guys I know are going to play hard as hell every time we play. That’s what I’m looking for.”