What is so irresistible about these Celtics is they are so talented, yet so flawed. They are a team that can look so good at times, then so uninterested and buffoonish in others.
In one early sequence Monday against the Indiana Pacers, Jayson Tatum fired a one-handed baseball pass that caught an unaware Robert Williams square on the side of his head. The ball sprung high in the air and soared out of bounds beyond the Celtics bench.
Boston spent most of its evening devising new ways to keep Indiana in the game and the self-deprecating strategy almost worked as the undermanned Pacers took a 4-point lead with 45.6 seconds left.
It was at that moment that those amiable Celtics return, rallying to tie on Tatum’s jumper with 1.8 seconds left and then holding on to a 101-98 win in overtime at TD Garden.
It was the most important win of the season because it was a win. The Celtics avoided the disasters that have plagued them this season. They overcame another fourth-quarter offensive meltdown, 19 turnovers in regulation, and a plethora of missed layups and short jumpers to ground out a victory.
“We weren’t as sharp as we wanted to be, pretty much all game,” said Celtics coach Ime Udoka. “I felt we let them stay in the game by the turnovers, self-inflicted ones, not even much pressure. We were slopping with the ball, throwing it all over the place. But we defended well overall. But we grounded out an ugly win.
“It shows some growth in that area. As much as we weren’t sharp in certain areas tonight, in the fourth quarter and overtime when we needed to get (defensive) stops, we had some of our sharpest execution on both sides of the ball.”
If you’re expecting pretty victories, picturesque offense, and barrages of 3-pointers, you’re watching the wrong team. The Celtics are resigned to just trying to win at this point, trying to build on good quarters and turning those into good halves and into good games.
They are just trying to string wins together, improve on defense, and hope that shot makers begin making shots.
What the Celtics didn’t do well Monday was offense. They shot 39.8 percent and missed 20 of 28 3-pointers. But what they avoided was allowing their poor offense to affect their defense. The Celtics are defending well again, and they bottled up Indiana until a couple of sequences where 29 percent 3-point shooter Torrey Craig and Lance Stephenson (yeah, that one) combined for four triples in the fourth quarter to give the Pacers the lead.
The Celtics were able to respond, using two free throws from Williams and that Tatum jumper to send it to overtime.
Boston then got a combined 9 points from Tatum and Jaylen Brown, as they picked the perfect time to play like a functional basketball team.
As bewildering as the Celtics have been this season, they are 2½ games from the sixth seed and avoiding the play-in tournament. They have to view the disheartening Knicks’ loss, where they blew a 25-point lead and allowed RJ Barrett’s 3-pointer at the buzzer, as a low point they can only build on.
It will be a challenge to make a run in Eastern Conference. Indiana awaits Wednesday followed by a Philadelphia 76ers-Chicago Bulls back-to-back on Friday and Saturday.
The Celtics are a long way from reaching consistency but they have enough time to get there. They will need some roster adjustments but Udoka made a statement Monday when he sat erratic Dennis Schröder in the latter stages of fourth quarter and overtime, replacing him with Josh Richardson and Grant Williams (Marcus Smart was out with a bruised thigh).
While the offense wasn’t flowing, at least the Celtics spread the floor with shooters, cut down on turnovers, and got needed buckets.
“Like I said, I’m looking at the positives of gutting one out,” Udoka said. “It’s gone the other way several times this year. We’ve been in enough of these situations to start to show some growth and improvement there. Ugly win and we’ll take it. We’ve been on the wrong side quite too many times, honestly. To grind it out, it’s good to see that.”
Tatum finished with 24 points on 7-for-21 shooting but he added 12 rebounds and that tying bucket to perhaps overshadow his eight turnovers.
“It felt great (to win),” he said. “I felt like that one would have hurt, had we lost. Throughout the course of the season, it feels good to figure games out like that, when we’re not shooting the ball well and I had all those turnovers. But just figuring it out and cleaning up stuff later. Most importantly, we were just telling ourselves, just find a way to turn around this game.”
It would have been another disheartening loss, especially since the Pacers played even more poorly than the Celtics most of the night. But the good thing is they don’t have to think in hypotheticals. It counts as a win, the Celtics now have to move on and continue to make strides. That’s their only recourse after a disappointing first 40 games.