The next time the Celtics take to the court on Causeway Street it will be for the maiden voyage of what Parishioners of the Parquet hope is a lengthy playoff run stretching into June and a date in the NBA Finals. That was both laughable and unthinkable just 70 days before Sunday’s blowout home finale against the Wizards.
That night, Jan. 23, the Celtics lined up against the same Wizards team in Washington. They were 23-24, sputtering along like a bowling ball headed for the gutter at your local lanes. There were cries to break up stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Now, thanks to a remarkable and magical resurgence the Celtics have positioned themselves with three games left in the regular season as one of the primary contenders in a jam-packed Eastern Conference field.
“Break up the Celtics” has an entirely different connotation.
It’s one of the most ineffable turnarounds in recent Boston sports history and catnip for a fan base that always sees the glass as half green. I-told-you-so’s are flowing like Tommy Points. Even the late, great Johnny Most would totally lose his voice trying to explain the degree to which the Celtics have turned it around.
Not to be a killjoy, but what does this sublime stretch mean if none of this translates to the playoffs? That’s still the biggest question for the Celtics. Can they bottle this brand of basketball for the postseason? It’s getting tougher to doubt them.
Sunday was the last low-pressure, low-stakes game the Celtics will play on the parquet this season, a 144-102 dismantling of the Wizards. They’re all playoff contests, big-boy basketball, from here. That ups the ante for a team that has designs on redecorating the rafters and sending up Banner No. 18.
With a 1 p.m. start it felt like a lazy Sunday. But after sleepwalking through a win over Indiana on Friday night, the Celtics displayed greater alacrity. The result was a lazy Sunday laugher; the Celtics led by as many as 43.
They carved up Washington’s “defense,” setting season-highs in field goals (56), field goal percentage (61.5 percent), and assists (39). The NBA’s No. 1 defense also got its groove back, lost since Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rob Williams went down with a torn meniscus, in the second half after allowing Washington to score 59 points in the first half.
“Defense travels. That’s one thing we have to hang our hat on,” said Jaylen Brown, who led the way with an electric and efficient 32-point, 7-rebound, 5-assist performance, shooting 70.6 percent.
“Without Rob, we’ve been figuring out different ways and today was an example of that. As we play these next couple of games, I think defense is where we need to hang our hat, and that’s what’s going to travel in the playoffs. Hitting shots, being aggressive, is important as well, but getting stops is important.”
To blossom this spring, the Celtics will need their supporting cast to rise to the occasion like it did Sunday. The Boston bench rang up 67 points. Trade deadline acquisition Derrick White couldn’t miss. He notched 17 points on 6 of 7 shooting and made all three of his 3-pointers. His lone “miss” was a blocked shot. Grant Williams was also 6 of 7 for 16 points and connected on 4 of 5 treys.
There is an old NBA axiom that role players usually play better at home than on the road. That’s why the Celtics rising to the No. 2 seed in the East with three games remaining is pivotal. The Celtics wrap up their season with road tests against the Chicago Bulls (Wednesday), the Milwaukee Bucks (Thursday), and the Memphis Grizzlies (next Sunday at 7 p.m.).
“We’ve seen quite a bit how Jayson and Jaylen are going to be defended at times. They’re going to try to make other guys prove it,” said coach Ime Udoka, a candidate for Coach of the Year.
“And the result is 39 assists when we’re making shots, but we’re also moving the ball and trusting our guys . . . Teams are going to load up and try to have those guys prove it.”
Loading up is what the Celtics do well. They are masters of the blowout. It’s their preferred medium of expression.
Sunday’s game — their third 40-point win of the season — is exactly the type of format in which they flourish. They haven’t fared as well when confronted with pushback or taut, tense contests.
Closing out games has been problematic. Games like Sunday’s are not the fare you anticipate in best-of-seven playoff series against potential opponents such as the defending NBA champion Bucks or the Philadelphia 76ers and old friend Doc Rivers.
There was something symmetrical about the Celtics’ destruction of the Wizards.
The last time the Celtics played the Wizards turned out to be the launching pad point of their season.
That game marked the last time the Celtics took the court below .500. They decimated the D.C. hoopsters, 116-87, as Tatum dropped 51 points. (A game-time decision with right knee patella tendinopathy, Tatum cruised to a mere 22 points Sunday, sitting out the entire fourth quarter.)
That monumental victory in D.C. in January begat a stretch in which the Green ripped off 24 wins in 28 games to reinvent and reorient their season.
Since Jan. 23, the Celtics have gone 26-6, tied for the best record in the NBA over that span, pending the outcome of Phoenix’s game against Oklahoma City. They’ve outscored opponents during that stretch by an average of 15 points per game.
“So, if you look back on my comments from early in the season I never lost faith. I never lost hope,” said Brown, asked if he foresaw this.
“I know things seemed to be bad. I was always optimistic. It’s relieving to be at this point where it seems to be that everybody else sees what I saw from the start. I think we still have a lot of room to grow. I feel like the stars are aligning.”
If there’s a totem for the turnaround it’s Celtics point guard Marcus Smart, he of the bulldog defense, supermodel confidence, and shaky shot. Smart has gone from being criticized by Celtics great Bob Cousy as not the right man for the point guard job to dropping dimes on a nightly basis while making a push to win NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
Befitting of his status as the longest-tenured Celtic — and a key piece in his mind — Smart addressed the crowd before the home finale.
If there were ever a fan base that qualified as ride-or-die it’s Celtics fans, and they’re riding high.
After the waxing of Washington, venerable in-arena voice Eddie Palladino said, “We look forward to seeing all of you back here at TD Garden in two weeks for the start of the NBA Playoffs.”
And a long playoff run we didn’t see coming.