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‘We’re moving in the right direction’: The Celtics still have work to do, but a convincing win over the Heat showed more progress

Rob Williams and the Celtics had some fun as they rolled past the shorthanded Heat on Monday.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Midseason transformations are difficult in an NBA where players are creatures of habit. They grow accustomed to routines. Teams establish identities and reputations early in the season and that can be difficult to change without a concerted effort.

The Celtics are trying to make one of those revivals nearly two-thirds into what has been a disappointing season, a rough beginning for new coach Ime Udoka and a series of letdown campaigns from some primary players.

The result has been a record hovering around .500 all season. But because the Eastern Conference has a group of teams with distinct weaknesses, none able to mount any substantial winning streaks to pull away, the Celtics are 5½ games out of first place with 30 to play.


The conference is there for the taking, or at least for the Celtics to avoid the play-in tournament with a top six playoff seed.

Games such as Monday’s 122-92 win over the shorthanded Miami Heat are critical to their resurgence. The Heat were without Jimmy Butler, P.J. Tucker, and Kyle Lowry but the previous version of the Celtics may not have run away with a win.

Boston has had trouble with shorthanded teams all season, taking teams lightly once the players learned of the injury report or COVID-19 protocol additions. This time, the Celtics didn’t play around with Miami, a team with a deep culture that always plays hard for Erik Spoelstra.

The Heat went on a 16-1 run to even the game at 32 early in the second period, and an angry Udoka admonished his team for its lackadaisical play. The response was a 22-13 run to end the half, then a third-quarter surge that turned this into another easy Celtics victory.

It’s apparent this team is maturing as the season progresses. They’re beginning to play with the pace Udoka has been clamoring for. They’re more consistent defensively and they’re even handling zone defenses better.


Al Horford, right, raises his arms as Miami's Bam Adebayo tries to save the ball from going out of bounds in the first half of Monday's game at TD Garden.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

“We are better [with responding to adversity] and we need to continue to grow in that area,” forward Al Horford said. “We showed some of it [Monday]. Obviously Miami is missing some players. In that scenario we need to continue to grow as a group, we get hit, the team goes on a run. Earlier in the year, I felt like we just didn’t handle it well. The last few weeks I feel like we’ve been doing a better job with that. We need to be able to handle those [situations].”

The Atlanta Hawks were lumbering a month ago with a 17-25 record and playing little defense, a shell of the team that reached the Eastern Conference Finals last season. The Hawks have gotten healthy and racked up seven straight wins – including Friday over the Celtics – before a Monday loss to the Toronto Raptors.

It’s possible for teams to get off the deck and undergo a metamorphosis midseason, but it requires belief, a sense of urgency, and attention to detail the Celtics have not demonstrated this season.

“It’s got to be a willingness and commitment from the group,” Horford said. ”What I’ve seen from our guys when they’re challenged, guys are responding and that’s how you see progress. That’s how you see improvement. The biggest thing is you have to commit to wanting to do it and if you do that during the season then you give yourself a chance.


“Sometimes I’ve been on teams where it’s just not happening. They don’t want to hear it. You’re not going to get anywhere. You are what you are. This team, I feel like we’re not playing our best basketball yet and we are moving in the right direction.”

Horford said Jaylen Brown, who led the Celtics with 29 points in 32 minutes, has been more vocal about remaining focused prior to each game. The Celtics have won four of their past five games, four blowout victories with the only hiccup that loss at Atlanta where the Celtics reverted to some bad habits.

“Jaylen is really keeping everybody focused,” Horford said. “I believe there’s a real sense of urgency from our group.”

Jaylen Brown had 29 points Monday night to lead the Celtics past Miami.Charles Krupa/Associated Press

It’s important to note that Jayson Tatum called his teammates together at Friday shootaround and warned them about being complacent after a couple of victories. After that loss, where the Celtics scored 2 points in a seven-minute fourth-quarter stretch, they thumped the New Orleans Pelicans the next night and then put together a 68-point second half to overwhelm the Heat and inch closer to the top group of teams in the Eastern Conference.

Point guard Marcus Smart also noticed a more vocal Brown over the past few weeks. It seems the Celtics’ two best players are seizing more of a leadership role at a crucial time.

“When we’re going through walkthroughs he’s actually talking more,” Smart said. “That’s what we’ve been asking for, to get out of his comfort zone on that end. He’s been doing a really good job; he’s saying all the right things. That’s something he has to continue to progress with.”


Smart has played some of his best basketball as a Celtic since returning from injury and health and safety protocols last season, and he’s confident in the team’s ability to resurge into contention.

“I love every last bit [of our progress], especially with the adversity we’ve been dealing with,” he said. “For us to finally start to make that walk in the right direction is big for us. It’s something that we needed and it’s happening at the right time for us.”

Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.