After a tough second-quarter stretch Sunday, Celtics coach Ime Udoka called an angry timeout. Newly acquired Derrick White, who has been in Boston about 48 hours, sensed his team needed encouragement and began clapping repeatedly as his teammates walked to the bench.
It was a small gesture, but one that didn’t go unnoticed. Not only has White blended into the Celtics’ concept quickly, the team has grown closer and more cohesive in the past several weeks.
If you recall, “effort” (or lack thereof) was a consistent theme in the first few months. The Celtics would play well for 20 minutes, then lousy for the next 10. They were a porous fourth-quarter team. They did not respond to adversity well.
Yet in front of a nationally televised audience, a basketball crowd increasingly curious about a team that’s played well against mostly inferior opponents, the Celtics played a stellar second half to dominate the Atlanta Hawks, 105-95, at TD Garden.
Boston won Friday despite a 9-point deficit against Denver, and stormed back Sunday from a 10-point hole by holding the Hawks below 40 percent shooting. They were also poised enough to weather a late Atlanta charge.
Many of the issues that plagued the early Udoka administration have dissipated as the season is nearly three-quarters done. The Celtics are far from a perfect team, but they are avoiding those self-inflicted mistakes that cost them nearly a dozen games this season.
The issues from last season — a choppy, uneven chemistry, Kemba Walker in and out of the lineup, Brad Stevens’s voice growing ineffective — no longer exist. These Celtics really like each other, and Udoka has shifted his lineup to accentuate his team’s strengths.
“I think we’re just clicking,” said forward Jayson Tatum, who led all scorers with 38 points. “The reality is, we had pretty much a new team. Everybody would have liked for us to play like this out the gate. We made efforts, but the reality is things take time. There are a lot of losses we wish we could have back, we wish we could change. We were all just adjusting to something new, whole new coaching staff, a new brand of basketball.
“It’s my fifth year now and you realize there’s a certain part of the season that’s better than others.”
Marcus Smart has played brilliantly the past few weeks at point guard, avoiding his 3-chucking ways — he’s either attacking the basket or whipping passes to open teammates and pushing the pace. Jaylen Brown overcame a rough first half Sunday with 11 third-period points as the Celtics seized the lead with a 42-point quarter.
There are no longer national debates as to whether the Celtics should separate Brown and Jayson Tatum. Smart is cemented as the team’s point guard, and the club was able to find a deal for guard Dennis Schröder, who couldn’t find a way to contribute adequately off the bench.
White has given Udoka a capable option for his closing lineup. In the two games he’s played, White has played with the four starters (sans Al Horford) to give the club a more versatile attack and defensive presence.
The fortunate news during the Celtics’ difficult times was that no team in the Eastern Conference pulled away. Each contender has dealt with its share of injuries and COVID-19 protocol, or just stretch of poor play. Sunday’s win thrust the Celtics into sixth in the East, and they have 24 games left to make up a 4½-game deficit.
“You realize that there’s certain points where you kind of just click. Things just feel a little bit more natural and you figure it out,” Tatum said. “We live in a world where everybody is a little impatient and expectations are coming at you from all angles. The rewarding part, winning eight, nine games in a row and playing well is you kind of remember when [expletive] wasn’t going right.
“Those early struggles kind of make days like this feel a little bit better.”
There was plenty of criticism of Udoka when the Celtics were 18-21 and blowing fourth-quarter leads at an alarming pace. He has stayed the course, reiterated his philosophy, and the messages are finally sinking in. The Celtics are a defense-first team that flourishes on offense with ball movement and pace.
“We took our lumps early finishing games, but the team has always responded well to being challenged,” Udoka said. “I was always optimistic early because we were building big leads. We had people in and out of the lineups, and the team never stopped fighting and stopped playing the right way. We got better as the season went, finishing games, and now you add a few pieces and winning breeds some of that confidence. I think guys are jelling together well and we know the group we have.
“I understood the big picture, that we could get to where we are. It’s going to take some time.”
The Celtics are finally progressing toward being a finished product, and all of their preseason goals and expectations are still attainable.