NEW YORK — What is becoming an impressive characteristic of this Celtics team is consistency. In winning 12 of their last 14 games, they have played at the same level every night, met or exceeded their expectations and developed the chemistry that escaped them the first half of the season.
Thursday night’s 129-106 win over the undermanned Brooklyn Nets at Barclays Center was mostly expected, considering the Nets are missing three All-Star caliber starters, most notably Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Yet, the Celtics took care of business quickly, building a comfortable lead, keeping it and pulling away for an easy wire-to-wire win.
There was no drama, no suspense. The Celtics used this game as a glorified practice and continued their stellar play of the past month, whipping the ball around the floor on offense, passing up the good shot for the better shot, and then racing around on defense, ensuring the Nets were incapable of mounting any serious run.
Coach Ime Udoka has stayed with his philosophy. The stone-faced first-year coach wanted this team to win with defense and timely offense, even if the players wanted to do it differently.
Sixty games worth of work, occasional heartache and growing pains has helped the Celtics into one of the top defensive teams in the NBA. And defense travels. The Celtics are capable of winning any playoff series because of their defense, where in the past, they mostly depended on shot making.
All-Star forward Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown don’t have to score 40 and 35 points, respectively, for the Celtics to beat elite teams. Each player has learned to trust their teammates and have become more than willing passers. Marcus Smart, who used the All-Star Break to recuperate from a sprained right ankle, returned to the lineup and continued his brilliant stretch at point guard.
“It makes life a little bit easier,” Tatum said. “We just having a lot more fun, knowing how we’re going to play and how we should be playing, and really just trying to build off that from game to game, and having fun while doing it.”
When asked what was more enjoyable, Tatum said: “Obviously stopping people consistently and just being connected on the defensive end and showing multiple efforts. I think just the way we’re moving the ball, everybody’s touching it and getting opportunities and it shows how much tougher we are to guard when we’re playing that way.”
The Celtics will likely see the Nets again. Brooklyn will get Durant, Irving and the newly-acquired Ben Simmons back in coming weeks. The Nets could pose a problem as a potential playoff opponent. But the Celtics responsibility is to beat the teams on their schedule, regardless of their situation. Their responsibility is to execute on defense, use that as a foundation and then score enough to win.
It’s not designed to be picturesque. It’s not supposed to be seductive. It’s just the best method for this team, as it’s currently constructed, to win games.
For Udoka, he’s been stressing these principals since he took over. He wanted to win with defense and ball movement. He had to break the Celtics out of bad habits, especially on offense. He reduced the isolation-ball and mandated his players not allow missed shots to result in defensive slippage on the next possession.
Finally, the Celtics are playing the way Udoka planned, and it’s a satisfying feeling after hearing his fair share of criticism through the first 40-plus games.
“It was a new scheme with some different things but they were learning me and I was learning what we have and we kind of tweaked some things,” he said. “But it’s obviously great that we can rely on that end every night and if shots aren’t falling, we give ourselves a great chance and as the offense has picked up, you are seeing the separation in the point margin.”
The Celtics are still not a finished product. They should be hunting for help in the buyout market to supplement their bench. The Milwaukee Bucks just signed former Net Jevon Carter. The Nets added Goran Dragic. The Philadelphia 76ers just signed Willie Cauley-Stein. The Celtics’ competitors are ramping up and they could still use another shooter and another quality backup point guard.
Their starting five has proven to be one of the best in the league when completely healthy. The Celtics were able to duck any misfortunate with the Smart and Robert Williams injuries and remain completely healthy. But Udoka doesn’t trust his bench as much as other contenders do with theirs and the best move would be to add another veteran player in the next few days.
For now, the Celtics are plenty good enough in the Eastern Conference. They are now 1½ games from the fourth seed and home-court advantage in the first round. The quintet of Smart, Brown, Tatum, Al Horford and Williams are dominating teams from the start, providing big leads and making nights easier for their coach.
“I’m real impressed with our group,” Horford said. “And like Coach said, the focus is what he talked about. We all understood and we need to come out and set the tone from the beginning. We always take pride defensively but now it’s even more contagious.”