On Nov. 1, after the Celtics were trounced by the Bulls to drop to 2-5 and ignite questions about where their suddenly spiraling season was headed, guard Marcus Smart sat in a small news conference room in the bowels of TD Garden and used his words to point a finger at All-Stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
He said it was obvious that defenses would swarm them and force them into difficult decisions, but he said it was their responsibility to make the proper ones.
“They don’t want to pass the ball,” Smart said then, “and that’s something they’re going to learn.”
It was a bit of a grenade drop, and the timing and the message did not feel ideal for a team that was reeling.
On Wednesday night, Smart was back in that same small room. His Celtics had just grabbed an impressive 113-107 win over the Hornets in which neither Tatum nor Brown had been dominant offensively. But they’d mostly made the proper reads and plays, and their teammates had picked them up with precise shooting.
“We all know everybody’s game plan, like I said before,” Smart said, a subtle nod to his November remarks. “The game plan that everybody has is to make the Jays pass the ball. They have to do a good job at it, and they’ve been doing a phenomenal job at it.”
It was a ringing endorsement following the searing early-season critique, but most of all, it was a sign that the Celtics, for perhaps the first time this season, are feeling pretty good these days.
They’re healthy and in rhythm and starting to believe in their foundation. They’ve won three games in a row and five of their last six, and they’re now a season-high three games above .500. With upcoming games against the lowly Pistons and Magic, there will be excellent opportunities for further progress.
“A lot of things we did early in the year that were hurting us we cut down on,” Smart said. “The things that were helping us earlier in the year, we’re starting to do more of, and it’s definitely showing itself, not just to the fans, to the teams we play, but to ourselves. Everybody’s confidence is going up.”
Closing games has been one of the Celtics’ weaknesses this season, and there was a here-we-go-again vibe Wednesday, as the Hornets erased an 11-point deficit in the final minutes. But this time the Celtics stayed competent and composed, and Robert Williams’s block of a potential go-ahead 3-pointer by P.J. Washington with 28.5 seconds left helped preserve the win.
“It feels nice, seeing us be able to execute when things got tight,” Celtics guard Josh Richardson said. “Just seeing us kind of turn that narrative around is good, so hopefully we can continue that.”
Richardson came off the bench, made six 3-pointers, and scored a team-high 23 points, and Smart added 22 points and six assists. The contributions were needed, with Tatum (19 points) and Brown (15) held a combined 20 points below their season average.
“That’s what it’s going to take some nights,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “It’s not always going to be your night scoring when they’re trying to stop you. But trust your teammates, make the right play.”
The Celtics shot 51.2 percent from the field and registered assists on 31 of 42 baskets. LaMelo Ball had 38 points and nine assists for the seventh-place Hornets (28-24), who sit just a half-game ahead of the Celtics (28-25) in the Eastern Conference standings.
Boston led by 11 points with less than four minutes remaining, but some uneasy moments followed. A 3-pointer by former Celtics guard Terry Rozier pulled Charlotte within 103-98, and then he hit another with 1:14 left to tie the score at 107.
Tatum was fouled on a drive with 35 seconds left and hit both free throws, and after a timeout Washington had a slice of daylight at the left arc as he lined up a potential go-ahead 3-pointer. But Williams quickly fought through a screen and used his long wingspan to bat away the attempt.
“It was amazing,” Smart said. “I actually told him, ‘You look like me out there. You’re going to beat me out for being one of the best defenders out here. So keep going. I’m proud of you.’ Rob is phenomenal. The athleticism he has to be able to guard 1-5 at his size is just tremendous.”
Smart added two free throws with 15.6 seconds left. After a timeout Ball air-balled a 3-pointer before Williams finished off the Hornets with a dunk.
“We’ve been in enough close games to where we’ve seen it go the other way,” Udoka said, “so we feel like we’ve hit a stretch where we get the shots we want, get the right looks, and then buckle down on defense and make the right plays. That’s a sign of growth.”