BRIGHTON — The Celtics have become a better team on the floor, partly because they have become a closer team off the floor.
As the team has ascended through the Eastern Conference — trailing by nine after that painful Jan. 6 loss to the New York Knicks and now 1½ games back of the Miami Heat with eight to play — they have become a more engaged and supportive bunch.
In the fourth quarter of the Celtics’ runaway win Wednesday over the Utah Jazz, Robert Williams and Marcus Smart were vigorously cheering on their teammates, who were playing as the game was already decided. The Celtics little-used reserves, meanwhile, spend the whole game watching while standing, as a means of support.
This is something that wasn’t always the case for the Celtics, who were considered one of the more mellower teams in the latter years of the Brad Stevens era.
“I was a more reserved player but if that’s who they are and they’re cheering their teammates on, obviously we encourage that,” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “The one thing I think has become contagious is their on-the-court play and that carries over to the bench. It’s trickled down, the unselfishness on the floor has carried over to the bench and obviously winning breeds a lot of that. Guys are really happy for each other and that’s a big sign of growth for us.”
Udoka said it’s important to see Celtics teammates cheering for each other, or offering encouragement after missed shots or miscues.
“It shows we have a connected group, a group that enjoys each other,” he said. “You look at a guy like Marcus (Smart), career high in assists but he scored 5 points last night but impacted the game tremendously. Payton (Pritchard) comes in and has a great stretch and (Smart’s) totally fine with that. It’s all about the team and what we’re doing on the court. That’s just an example of (Smart) doing well and Payton coming in and doing well and (Smart) not rushing to come in and pick up stats.”
Pritchard’s second-half surge
Pritchard is shooting an impressive 50.7 percent from the 3-point line since the All-Star Break. He attributes his early-season issues to lack of playing time and pressing late in games, but he’s playing five more minutes per game since the break and is flourishing and he has more options when Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are on the floor.
“I’m getting a lot of easy looks from these guys, so my job is to knock those down,” he said. “With Jayson and Jaylen handling the ball , you play off the ball a lot. In college I was playing point guard, had the ball in my hands, so a lot of time I was driving. It’s just a feel, if I can get my shot off and I’m feeling it, I’m going to let it go. If not, I’m going to drive it.”
Pritchard has made 15 of 24 2-point attempts since the All-Star Break.
Former Miami Heat great and Utah Jazz minority governor Dwyane Wade was sitting courtside Wednesday, holding special significance for Pritchard, who idolized Wade as a child. Pritchard said he and his father would play video basketball and dad would always play with the Miami Heat, featuring a young Wade.
Pritchard then studied Wade’s game and became a big fan.
“That was my favorite player growing up; I wore No. 3 because of him,” Pritchard said. “I looked up to him since I was a real little kid. It was a crazy moment seeing (Wade) there (Wednesday) watching the game.”
Pritchard said he has never met Wade.
“That would be sweet,” he said.
The Celtics will take the next two days off before Sunday’s game with the Minnesota Timberwolves followed by a Monday game at Toronto. The Celtics will return for their final three home games of the season before a three-game season-ending road trip at Chicago, Milwaukee and Memphis … Williams said teammate Smart would be his choice for Defensive Player of the Year. A guard has not won the award since Gary Payton in 1996. But there is growing support for Smart, as the Celtics have emerged as the league’s best defensive team and Smart is considered the nucleus of the unit. “Marcus Smart, that’s how I feel about that,” Williams said. “Easily,” was Williams’s response to whether Smart should get the DPOY vote.