NEW YORK — Before the Celtics departed for the All-Star break last week, coach Ime Udoka said that although it was important for his players to get rest, he did not want them to lose the edge that had helped them soar lately. This was no time for cobwebs to accumulate.
On Thursday night, Boston took the floor for the first time since then and mostly resembled the powerhouse it has become in recent weeks. Facing yet another undermanned opponent the Celtics roared to yet another wire-to-wire, lopsided win, 129-106 over the Nets.
“It felt like we didn’t come out rusty at all,” Udoka said. “We continued to do the things we’d done well going into the break. That’s a mentally-focused group that came out and executed and defended well and scored. We picked up where we left off.”
It was the Celtics’ 10th victory in their last 11 games and it further distanced them from the play-in tournament that they seemed to be careening toward when their season was so unsettled. Forward Al Horford said the Celtics had a focused, productive practice Wednesday and had a similar look at their shootaround Thursday morning, so he was confident.
“We feel like we’ve found something these last few weeks,” Horford said, “and it’s just good that after the break we came out and there were no steps back.”
Jayson Tatum had 30 points and 7 rebounds and was one of seven Celtics to finish in double figures in scoring. Robert Williams had 12 points and 11 rebounds and Horford added 11 points and 13 rebounds. Boston made 54.1 percent of its shots and 40.5 percent of its 3-pointers.
The Nets remained without starters Kevin Durant (knee), Ben Simmons (personal), Kyrie Irving (vaccine mandate) and Joe Harris (ankle), as well as newly signed guard Goran Dragic. And the talent disparity was obvious.
Horford and Udoka were both pleased with Boston’s pace. The Celtics registered 10 fast-break points in the opening quarter, and even when opportunities to run stalled, the ball was whipped around with urgency and precision.
“We were getting stops and turnovers and getting out and running, getting some easy baskets, and that was good to see,” Udoka said. “They started going zone to slow it down a little bit, but if we can get stops and get out and run and not play against zone, that’s great as well. So, I like it. It felt like a high-paced game.”
Before the game, Nets coach Steve Nash heaped more praise on Boston’s elite defense. Then his team received another up-close reminder when it was held to 41.5 percent shooting overall and 24.1 percent from the 3-point line.
The Nets lineups certainly weren’t fearsome, but the Celtics’ elite defense made them look helpless. Time and again, Brooklyn was forced to fire up an attempt with the shot-clock running down, and they were often shooters who should not be shooting. For example, James Johnson took as many first-half 3-pointers as Seth Curry did.
“We always take pride defensively, but now it’s more contagious,” Horford said. “It’s even more the way we are defending, the way we are enjoying playing defense out there. We’re helping one other, flying around, not giving up any easy shots. It’s really fun when everyone is so engaged defensively to play that way.”
When these teams met two weeks ago, the Celtics surged to a 28-2 lead. It wasn’t quite that grisly this time, but it was not close, either. Marcus Smart, who returned from the ankle injury he suffered last Tuesday against the 76ers, drained 4 of 5 first-half 3-pointers to stretch the first-half lead to as many as 22 points, and Boston held a double-digit advantage for the game’s final 42 minutes.
This was Boston’s first game with its full complement of players following its recent trades, and Udoka stuck with an eight-man rotation deep into the fourth quarter, with center Daniel Theis the odd man out.
“We’ll kind of spin the three-man rotation with the bigs at times,” Udoka said. “Rob got some foul trouble so we went back with Al early where we may bring Theis at times. It was just flow of the game, feel of the game.”
While the Celtics continue to build an impressive portfolio against undermanned and overmatched teams, they’d probably benefit from facing a formidable opponent, if only to get a true gauge on their progress. That won’t happen anytime soon, however, with their next three opponents having losing records.
Still, they continue to dispose of whoever is in front of them, usually with blowouts such as Thursday’s.
“I was extremely happy,” Tatum said. “Coming off break, that first game back can be a little unpredictable sometimes. But guys were locked in.”