On Dec. 29, the Celtics walked off the court frustrated and flattened after a loss to the Clippers dropped their record to 16-19 and left them in 11th place in the Eastern Conference. No one knew which direction the season would go from there, but there were few reasons to believe it would be up.
In the three months since, the climb has been unrelenting. On Sunday, the Celtics crafted a lopsided and familiar, 134-112, wire-to-wire win over the Timberwolves that pushed them into a tie with the Heat for first place in the East, a spot that once seemed unfathomable.
“It’s been a journey,” forward Jayson Tatum said. “We’ve had to find our identity. Lost some teammates, got some new guys, we’ve had to battle. But it’s been fun, even some of the tougher times looking back. We benefited from it, made us better along the way.”
Sunday’s win was the Celtics’ sixth in a row, and they led by at least 20 points in each one. Aside from this improbable rise, which has been impressive on its own, the startling level of thoroughness continues to reset expectations.
Tatum had 34 points and Jaylen Brown added 31 to lead the Celtics (47-28), who shot 56.3 percent from the field and 43.6 percent (17 of 39) from the 3-point line.
But the night’s celebratory feel was muted after center Robert Williams left the game due to a left knee sprain in the third quarter. Coach Ime Udoka said Williams was unsure how he suffered the injury, but was experiencing “quite a bit of pain” on the lateral side of his knee.
Williams, who missed Monday’s game against the Thunder due to tendinitis that was aggravated by an awkward landing, will undergo further tests Monday morning. He has already been ruled out for Monday night’s game against the Raptors.
Forward Al Horford missed Sunday’s game due to personal reasons, and Udoka said he would likely sit out the Toronto game, too, leaving Boston thin in the frontcourt. Daniel Theis will likely start at center, and Udoka will either lean on smaller bench lineups or turn to veteran Luke Kornet as his backup center.
Against Minnesota, though, Boston had enough reinforcements to slow down Wolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns. Towns had 12 points in the first quarter before it was clear that this game would turn into yet another Celtics blowout, but was limited to seven after that.
“Even without the double teams, we mixed it up a little bit, keep him off-balance there,” Udoka said. “He’s a heavy right-hand driver. He got to his right hand two or three times. Try to send him left a little bit better, which we did. Just taking up his air space on the perimeter.”
The Celtics led, 34-30, after the first quarter before blowing the game open in the second, when Tatum and Derrick White scored 10 points apiece and Boston forced five turnovers to open up a 72-49 halftime lead.
The Timberwolves drilled four 3-pointers during a two-minute stretch in the third quarter. In many cases, that would be a good way to seize control. In this game, all it did was pull Minnesota within 17 points.
The Celtics shrugged, and continued their onslaught from earlier. Tatum threw down a powerful dunk and converted a four-point play. Marcus Smart tossed an alley-oop to Daniel Theis. TD Garden continued to shake.
“It’s fun,” White said. “Just going out there, making the right basketball play, getting stops, getting out rolling, it’s been a lot of fun.”
Despite Boston’s move into first place, Udoka said his primary focus the final two weeks of the regular season will be playing well and staying healthy. And with that in mind, he hinted the roster could be even more shorthanded Monday.
Tatum and Brown were both listed as probable Sunday due to knee soreness, and Udoka said both players would be evaluated again to determine their availability against the Raptors. Tatum said he was unsure if he would travel to Toronto.
With Horford and Williams already out, it could present an opportunity for the Celtics to essentially punt one game while keeping the bigger picture in mind. Toronto also still has a COVID-19 mandate in place that requires opposing players to be vaccinated. The Celtics have said that the majority of the team is, but have declined to identify individual cases.