PORTLAND – Near the end of the Celtics’ game against the Trail Blazers on Saturday, players on Boston’s bench were standing and watching intently, some with arms locked, as Payton Pritchard sized up his defender well beyond the top of the key.
Pritchard, a Portland native, dribbled through his legs and created space with a crossover dribble. Some of the Celtics on the sideline were rapt as they crept closer to the court. When the ball slid through the net, some Celtics waved towels in the air and others collapsed in celebration.
But this was not a tense game-winner. The shot had simply stretched Boston’s lead to 28 points and put the finishing touches on a commanding 145-117 win.
Pritchard missed three more 3-pointers over the final 45 seconds—his hometown crowd was enjoying his 16-point fourth quarter, too—before coach Ime Udoka said it was enough. But in the end, the Celtics were happy to just have a rare feel-good night.
One game after surrendering 137 points in a loss to the Jazz, then having mechanical issues with their team plane that kept them from getting to Portland until nearly 2 a.m., and playing without injured starters Jaylen Brown and Al Horford, Boston put together one of its most complete games of this mercurial season.
“What I said to the guys at halftime is you see the difference…when the ball was moving, less holding, less isolation, we feel it as coaches,” Udoka said. “I said, ‘I see it and you see it, too.’ That’s what we saw the last two games.”
The game was not perfect. Boston started the game by making 14 of 15 shots and surging to a 21-point first quarter lead. Then that edge was swiftly whittled to 1 point in the second quarter, and a here-we-go-again vibe crept in. But even as Portland made its run, the Celtics’ scorching shooting never really abandoned them.
Boston scored however it wished, whenever it wished, and midway through the fourth quarter it had regained all of its early lead, and then some.
“We really got back to what we did in the first quarter,” Udoka said. “We kind of got bored with what was working for us, started going isolation-heavy in the second quarter, and I got them back out to running in transition.”
The Celtics made 56.3 percent of their shots and 56.8 percent of their 3-pointers, both season highs by wide margins. Boston had connected on more than 50 percent of its field goals just once in 23 games this year.
Saturday’s sparkling performance came one night after the Celtics allowed the Jazz to drill 27 3-pointers against them in the 137-130 loss, the most ever by a Boston opponent. After that game, though, the players were hopeful that their own offensive outburst could be a sign of things to come, and the momentum certainly did not disappear in Portland.
The Celtics scored 74 points in the second half against Utah, and 81 in the second half against the Blazers.
Sometimes, shots finally start going in because it is time for them to finally start going in. But the Celtics credited this current uptick to an added emphasis on pace. They are not standing around and watching one player pound the ball into the floor, as they tended to do during their most clunky moments. They are acting quickly and precisely, and the results have been noticeable.
“We played fast, moved the ball,” point guard Dennis Schroder said. “I think when we do that, we’re going to be in great shape. I think that’s what we have to focus on.”
Schroder and Jayson Tatum led the Celtics with 31 points apiece, and both were able to watch the final minutes from the bench, a rare respite for the team’s overworked top tier.
The end turned into a show, anyway, with Pritchard pouring in 16 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter. After Pritchard’s final 3-pointer with a minute left, Schroder received a technical foul for sprawling onto the court, essentially a punishment for having too much fun.
Udoka later apologized to Portland coach Chauncey Billups for the late-game pile-on that was mostly harmless, and even had the support of most of the remaining Blazers fans who were happy to see the Portland native and former Oregon star shine long after the game’s outcome had been decided.
“I mean we’re hitting shots, so I don’t know what they want us to do,” Pritchard said. “At the same time, I get it. We were like free-balling it, but we were just playing ball and hitting shots, so.”