For much of this season, the Celtics have played tense games that left their fans anxious and uneasy until the end. But that has not been the case recently.
With their top players finally healthy, and with a stretch of overmatched and undermanned competition, the Celtics have given their confidence and their record a jolt with a series of lopsided wins. The latest came Monday night, against a Heat team that is usually powerful and dangerous, but in this case was missing Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry, P.J. Tucker and Markieff Morris.
Although Miami was plucky at times, Boston’s 122-92 win at TD Garden in which it never trailed was an accurate portrayal of the night. It was the Celtics’ fourth win in their last five games, and they have outscored opponents by an average of 30.5 points per game in those victories.
“You start to feel better,” guard Marcus Smart said. “Those shots that you were missing start to go in. So, we’ve got to keep it up. Everybody’s in good spirits, and that’s how it should be.”
Despite this mini surge, Boston remains in ninth place in the Eastern Conference with 30 games left. Still, the thoroughness of these recent wins has been notable, even if the strength of the opponent has not.
Now, for perhaps the first time since the start of the year, frustration and angst has been replaced with optimism and hope. Sure, it might be temporary. But for now it’s certainly better than the alternative.
“We can’t control what a lot of other teams are doing,” forward Al Horford said, “but the one thing is that win or lose, we need to be playing a certain way, and we have to feel a certain way, and I feel like we’re starting to find that as a group.”
Jaylen Brown scored 29 points on 11 of 19 shooting to lead Boston, and his impact was felt in other ways. Horford said that at the start of the game, with Miami missing so many key pieces, Brown gathered his teammates and urged them to pounce at the start. He did not want the Heat’s shooters to gain early confidence. He did not want this night to turn sideways.
Within minutes, the Celtics had opened up a double-digit lead.
“We were able to jump them right away and it kind of set the tone for the rest of the game,” Horford said. “The fact that us developing those habits, consistently coming out with that way, it makes a big difference.”
Jayson Tatum had 20 points and 12 rebounds and Smart added 16 points and 7 assists. This recent uptick has coincided with the return of Smart following his bout with COVID-19. Over the last five games the Celtics have outscored opponents by 39.9 points per 100 possessions with Smart on the court. With Smart on the bench, Boston had been outscored by 5.7 points per 100 possessions.
“Having some time off to see some things, you see things from a different perspective,” Smart said. “You see things from the coaches’ eyes and most things that you wouldn’t recognize or see as long as you’re out there playing. So I was able to get the best of both worlds and bring what I’ve learned and what I’ve seen and bring it back.”
The Heat play zone defense as often as any team in the NBA. So since they were missing some of their top man-to-man defenders, and since the Celtics struggle against zones, it was no surprise to see Miami sag back in one for much of the night. But this time the Celtics hardly looked lost, with Smart and Tatum conducting the offense by patrolling the middle gaps, and Boston using good ball movement and quick cuts to get clean looks at the hoop.
The Celtics made 52.4 percent of their shots and drilled 16 3-pointers. While coach Ime Udoka was pleased with how his team attacked the zone, he said his preference is for the defense to force turnovers or get stops that ignite transition opportunities and stop an opponent from getting into a set defense. The Heat committed 19 turnovers and shot 39.1 percent from the field.
There was really just one uncomfortable segment for the Celtics. Early in the second quarter the Heat wiped away a 13-point deficit with an 18-5 run that tied the score at 32. But that’s mostly where Miami’s hopes vanished. The Celtics called timeout and then returned to the court and scored seven points in a row.
“Earlier in the year I felt like we just didn’t handle [opponents’ runs] well,” Horford said. “But the last few weeks I feel like we’ve been doing a better job with that and that’s something that we want to continue to be better.”
Whenever Miami had hints of rallies later, they were snuffed out quickly and emphatically, and by the time the lead ballooned to 30 points in the fourth quarter, the Celtics’ starters were watching comfortably from the bench.