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The Celtics figured it out against the Hornets before it was too late, and that’s a good sign

The Celtics' Jayson Tatum controls the ball with pressure from Charlotte's Miles Bridges in the third quarter at TD Garden.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

The descent was full blown, the Celtics were wasting another late double-digit lead, again on the verge of another painful loss, another game they could have and should have won.

In the final minute, when the Celtics weren’t getting any breaks, they decided to make some, determine their own fate instead of allowing bad and unfortunate things to happen.

Boston owned the final 35 seconds of its showdown with the Charlotte Hornets and that was all it needed. A team that has blown at least 12 games in the fourth quarter this season found a way to win one, using the athletic brilliance of Robert Williams and some key plays down the stretch.


The 113-107 win over their playoff competitors could have been less suspenseful, but it’s a positive for a team that’s struggled to close out games all season.

Style points don’t matter at this stretch. The NBA has been filled with unexpected blowouts, crazy comebacks, and befuddling losses. The only team exempt from this appears to be the Phoenix Suns.

The rest of the league is on a nightly roller coaster, and the Celtics’ responsibility over the next 29 games is to remain as stable as possible. The first nine teams in the Eastern Conference are now separated by 5½ games, meaning the opportunity for the Celtics to make a legitimate run was there.

The team pointed to the past two games as must wins in this quest. Beating a shorthanded Miami team by 30 points was a moderate accomplishment, but avenging a loss to Charlotte two weeks ago and leading most of the second half was an impressive feat.

Of course, the Celtics are going to have to figure out how to be more cohesive offensively in the fourth quarter. They shot 35 percent in the final period and made some defensive mistakes but Jaylen Brown was able to draw a key charge and Williams capped the satisfying win with the block of a P.J. Washington go-ahead 3-point attempt.


Marcus Smart scores in between Charlotte's P.J. Washington and Kelly Oubre Jr. during second-quarter action Wednesday night at TD Garden.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

“This is something we’ve preached and harped on all season,” guard Marcus Smart said. “What we have to fix and what we have to get better at. Against a team like Charlotte to have to put that to the test and see what we’re made of. On the defensive end, we didn’t have those lapses we usually have when the game started to get really close. We have a lot of things we need to clean up but we’re headed in the right direction.”

This was one of those nights where Brown and Jayson Tatum were not sharp offensively, as the Charlotte defense blitzed both. Tatum scored 19 points on 6-for-16 shooting and was just 1 of 7 from the 3-point line. Brown committed seven turnovers, many unforced, and was 7 of 15 with 15 points.

The Celtics are usually doomed when this occurs. Yet, Smart and Josh Richardson combined for 45 points and eight 3-pointers. Richardson enjoyed one of his better games of the season and is proving why he could be a valuable asset during this run.

This team desperately needs offensive support and Richardson appears unafraid of the moment and capable of breakout games. Coach Ime Udoka has shortened his bench, barely playing Aaron Nesmith, Payton Pritchard, and Romeo Langford and going with Richardson, Grant Williams, and Dennis Schröder as his bench.


It’s an indication the Celtics are trying to win now instead of allowing the young trio to develop. If that’s the case, Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens needs to supplement his bench with another quality shooter.

Smart and Richardson saved the Celtics on Wednesday. They were able to burn collapsing defenses with outside shooting or slicing to the basket. The Celtics won on a night when Tatum and Brown scored just 30 percent of their points.

Jayson Tatum is defended by Charlotte's P.J. Washington's during fourth-quarter action Wednesday at TD Garden.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

And Udoka realizes there is much to improve. The Celtics committed 19 turnovers and put the Hornets on the free throw line 27 times, hindering a sparkling defensive performance. But still, they were able to prevail. They are talking about shortcomings after a victory instead of lamenting another frustrating loss.

They control their own fate going forward and perhaps will get a roster boost before the Feb. 10 trade deadline. So for all of the tumult and disdain the first 3½ months have caused in Boston, the Celtics are still playing for something big, still in the middle of an Eastern Conference scrum where no team appears capable of pulling away.

“We just needed this game in general, for our team, for our confidence,” Smart said. “We wanted to come out and redeem ourselves and we did it the right way. A lot of things that we were doing earlier in the year that hurt us, we cut down on. It’s definitely showing itself, not only to the fans and the teams we are playing but ourselves. Everybody’s confidence is going up and everybody continues to believe in one another.”


A fully healthy Celtics team is beginning to approach its potential and it was encouraging to beat a quality team on a night where their two All-Stars were subpar. And while they still have much to improve over the next two-plus months, they are picking the perfect time to play their best basketball of the season.

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