NEW YORK — When the Celtics were scuffling below .500 and their season had no clear direction, a narrative began to sprout that had once seemed unimaginable for a young team that believed it would be powerful: Maybe it was time to look toward the future. Maybe, when the Feb. 10 trade deadline neared, it would be best to part ways with some key pieces, collect a few draft picks, and try again with Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown next season.
All along, though, first-year coach Ime Udoka remained confident that if the Celtics just got all of their injured players back, if they just had an extended run together, things might look better than anyone expected. And while president of basketball operations Brad Stevens could ultimately hit a soft reset button at Thursday’s deadline anyway, his team’s winning streak, which was extended to six games with Tuesday night’s 126-91 demolition of the Nets, has made the approach less straightforward.
“We’re happy with how we’re playing, happy with what the guys are doing and seeing our full group together now,” Udoka said. “I’m sure it changed some of the [trade] conversation based on what we’re doing lately.”
The Celtics have won eight of their last nine, and Udoka added that this run may also have raised the trade value of some of their assets. Regardless, just a few weeks after this team appeared at risk of potentially missing the playoffs, it has now vaulted into a virtual tie for sixth in the East with the Raptors, 4½ games behind the first-place Heat.
The Celtics are now ahead of the eighth-place Nets, a team that was viewed as a championship contender earlier this season but has lost nine games in a row after having its roster decimated by injuries.
The Nets on Tuesday were without six of their top seven players, including superstars Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving, and that was obvious when the Celtics exploded to a 28-2 lead. The Nets backups were demoralized before they could even contemplate being pests. They threw half-hearted double-teams at Tatum, and he slipped passes to open teammates time and again.
“We wanted to take care of business early,” Brown said. “We didn’t want to play around, give them confidence, and let them linger into the game. We just wanted to come out, do our job, get on up out of here, and move on.”
The Celtics’ resurgence has been buoyed by wins against undermanned and overmatched teams such as this one, and that has made it challenging to tell if they have morphed into a juggernaut overnight, or if they are simply disposing of opponents who don’t have a chance.
They’ll find out soon enough, but for now they will not dismiss their hot streak. They do not think it was built on luck.
“We’re hitting our peak and starting to click at the right time,” guard Marcus Smart said. “I think we’re the only ones that really believed we still had an attainable chance of what we wanted to do, which is OK. That’s all we need.”
This was Boston’s sixth wire-to-wire win in its last nine games. During this stretch, the Celtics also fell behind the Pelicans, 2-0, but never trailed again. NBA leads tend to be fickle, but the Celtics have remained in command throughout. The fourth-quarter collapses from earlier this season have been replaced by fourth quarters in which the starters have not even needed to play.
The surge has been sparked by defense, and that was the case on Tuesday, too. Brooklyn was held scoreless for 4 minutes, 12 seconds before Blake Griffin ended Boston’s 14-0 start with a jumper.
The Celtics responded to that minor dent by unfurling another 14-0 run, stretching their lead to 28-2. Yes, these Nets were completely overmatched, but even completely overmatched teams typically avoid 28-2 deficits.
“It feels like we’re connected,” Udoka said. “It feels like, at times, we engulf teams and suffocate them with our size and length and some of those things. It feels like everybody is taking the challenge and embracing it, embracing that mentality. When everyone comes out on the same page, you see a lot of first quarters where teams are scoring in the teens.”
Brown had 22 points, 9 assists, and 7 rebounds in 28 minutes, and Smart added 22 points. The Celtics made 54.9 percent of their shots and held the Nets to 38.4 percent shooting, and they pushed the Nets into a spot in the standings few believed they would be in at this point in the season.
But Smart said afterward that he has avoided glancing at the standings, because he doesn’t want to start forcing things based on where his team sits.
“Just let things happen the way they’re supposed to and just play,” he said. “Everything else can handle itself.”