Jaylen Brown lined up for an open 3-pointer from the left arc, and the ball thudded off the lower part of the backboard. Aaron Nesmith had a clean look from the left corner, and it caromed off the side.
There were air balls and turnovers and other lost opportunities in the first half against the Pelicans Monday, and most alarmingly, there was an 18-point deficit, with the Celtics appearing to sleepwalk through the rare 12:30 p.m. start.
But on the sideline, coach Ime Udoka was not overly concerned. He felt that his players had missed some open shots, but their defensive effort had remained consistent. Also, he was confident that if the Celtics started aggressively attacking the basket against the Pelicans’ below-average pick-and-roll wall, they would find success.
Then they took the court after the break, pushed aside their sloppy beginning, and played a complete and dominant half, flipping an 18-point hole into a 17-point lead before coasting to a 104-92 win.
“We never were demoralized or out of the game with that feeling,” Udoka said. “It was really a matter of when our offense is going, if we continue to defend this well, we’ll be in good shape.”
Jayson Tatum, who was just 2 for 7 and scored 6 points in the first half, spearheaded the rejuvenated and aggressive approach after the break, when he scored 21 of his 27 points despite not making a 3-pointer. Udoka said that Tatum appeared to notice how Dennis Schröder and Brown were having success blitzing to the rim, and it was easy enough for him to emulate it.
Schröder once again started in place of Marcus Smart, who remains in COVID-19 protocol, and Udoka leaned on him heavily. The veteran point guard played the entire second half and finished with 23 points, 9 assists, and 5 rebounds.
Schröder’s future in Boston will become one of the main talking points surrounding this team as the Feb. 10 trade deadline approaches. He is on an expiring contract, and the Celtics would be limited in their ability to re-sign him next summer anyway, so president of basketball operations Brad Stevens could look for suitors. But the Celtics also have won five of six games, and if they are able to resurrect this season, Schröder would figure to play a key role in that.
The Celtics (23-22) are hardly emerging as Eastern Conference contenders, of course, but this latest win did push them back above .500 for the first time since they were 13-12 on Dec. 7, and the upcoming schedule remains quite navigable.
“We’ve been playing pretty good as of late,” Tatum said. “Been hoping soon that we can get everybody back and just continue to build off this. Like you said, there’s 37 games left. That’s enough time to make up some ground.”
Smart will likely return soon, and center Robert Williams, who missed Monday’s game because of the birth of his child, is expected back for Wednesday against the Hornets. Despite missing two of their top defensive players Monday, the Celtics held the Pelicans to 41.4 percent shooting and 63 points over the final three quarters.
But there were moments in the first half when it appeared that a solid defensive effort wouldn’t even matter. The Celtics committed six turnovers over the final 3:09 of the opening period and fell behind, 29-18.
And the scoring drought that started during that stretch lingered well into the second period, as the Celtics scored just 2 points over a stretch of 6:45. No Celtics bench player scored a point in the first half.
The Celtics probably were fortunate that their deficit did not balloon beyond 18 points, but the Pelicans haven’t taken advantage of many opportunities this year, either.
The Celtics closed the first half with a 15-4 run and pulled within 46-39 at the break, and Schröder hit a 3-pointer with 33.8 seconds left in the third quarter to give the Celtics their first lead, 69-67.
Tatum took over at the start of the fourth, when he hit a jumper, attacked for a 3-point play, and came up with a steal and dunk that stretched the lead to 80-71. The Celtics mostly remained in control after that.
“I think we didn’t settle as much,” Udoka said. “You saw some guys pass up some decent shots, but move it and get the next guy a wide-open shot. So that’s what we stressed and I think that’s what kind of happened in the second half.”