It did not take long for the Celtics to develop a tough, defense-first identity under coach Ime Udoka. Even when the team was scuffling earlier this year, even when it appeared that a frying pan was covering Boston’s basket, the defense usually at least gave the team a chance.
But Udoka remained confident the offense would eventually follow. He consistently pointed out how many of the veterans were shooting below their career averages. Those numbers generally do not just fall interminably.
He also believed there was time to change some bad habits. Sometimes, players were trying to get past two defenders rather than simply making a quick pass to allow a teammate to operate against one or none.
And as the ball started moving and shots started falling, the Celtics’ attack no longer looked fragile. On Sunday, the team provided another example of its retooled and re-energized attack, as it bulldozed the Wizards from all angles and roared to a 144-102 win.
The last 15 games, Boston owns the NBA’s top-ranked offense. The Celtics have scored 123.8 points per 100 possessions, more than three points better than the next closest team during this stretch, the Hornets.
“I think that just takes a little bit of time to continue to understand that you don’t have to make the play over two or three guys,” Udoka said. “Trust your teammates, and that’ll open everything up for you. So that part took a little more time, and the results are based on that.”
Udoka had some concerns this week that his team was not as crisp and locked in as it needed to be with the playoffs approaching. After spending weeks mostly decimating teams, Boston lost to the Raptors and Heat, and struggled at home against the rebuilding Pacers.
But Sunday’s performance was thorough. The Celtics made 61.5 percent of their shots, 52.3 percent of their 3-pointers, and they outscored Washington 74-43 in the second half.
Jaylen Brown had 32 points on 12 for 17 shooting, along with 7 rebounds and 5 assists. Jayson Tatum added 22 points, 7 assists and 6 rebounds. The Celtics also received significant contributions from their bench, led by Derrick White (17 points), Grant Williams (16) and Payton Pritchard (14).
Williams had been mired in a month-long shooting slump, but he connected on four of his five attempts from beyond the arc Sunday.
“You’ve got to keep shooting,” Williams said. “One of those things where, as a shooter, as a guy that this is my first time really going through it as much as I have this year, it’s just a matter of keep being confident, letting those things fly.”
With the win, the Celtics (49-30) pushed into second place in the Eastern Conference standings. They are a half-game ahead of the third-place Bucks and fourth-place Sixers, and two games behind the first-place Heat. With just three games left in the regular season, Boston could still land anywhere from first to fourth in the East.
“I never lost faith,” Brown said. “I know things seemed to be bad, but I was always optimistic. It’s relieving to be at this point, where everyone sees what I saw from the start. I think we still have a lot of room to grow. The stars are aligning.”
The Celtics will close the regular season with road games against the Bulls, Bucks and Grizzlies, three teams that are guaranteed to be in the playoffs. Chicago and Milwaukee are still fighting to solidify their seeding.
While Udoka was pleased to see his team return to its punishing ways Sunday, there will also be value in getting more substantial challenges before the most important games begin.
“Not only high-level competition but all teams are playing for something,” Udoka said. “It’ll be a great test. We talked about Utah, Golden State and Denver, and our month of March being harder than our February was, and I think this all kind of leans into going into playoffs and keeping us sharp and focused.”
The Celtics’ defense has taken a step back since center Robert Williams suffered a knee injury last week. And in the first half Sunday, despite scoring at will, the defense was not fearsome. The Wizards shot better than 50 percent from the field and hardly faced playoff-level resistance.
But the coaches cleaned up some gaps in the team’s screen-switching scheme and the intensity level was turned up a notch in the third quarter, when Washington was held to 20 points and the Celtics opened up a commanding 104-79 lead. The potent offense, meanwhile, was visible throughout.
When the Celtics wanted to get to the rim for easy chances, they did, with Brown leading the way. And with a few quick passes they generally lined up wide open 3-pointers that they had little trouble converting.