While it’s repetitive to compare this year’s Celtics to last year’s edition that took so long to adapt to a new system and blew so many winnable games, it’s almost necessary because of the striking difference.
The Celtics played teams with losing records the past two games, teams that were hungry, young, and eager to knock off the big dogs, and the Celtics were shorthanded, lacked energy, and hence grew frustrated.
That frustration would have led to lackadaisical play and disintegration last season. The Celtics were agitated Monday against the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder. An overwhelmed officiating crew made some bizarre calls.
Jayson Tatum, experiencing his worst shooting night of the season, was called for a first-half technical for slapping his hands together after picking up a bad foul. His teammates argued other calls, and the TD Garden crowd joined in the jeering.
The Thunder played like a team ready to escape lottery status, using their young cohesive core to jump on their more experienced opponent and take control late in the third quarter with a 15-point lead. Instead of folding, or conceding to what was a more prepared opponent, the Celtics rallied, turned the Thunder into a bumbling team and finally overcame the challenge with a 126-122 win.
The Celtics have beaten Detroit and Oklahoma City while playing far from their best, and elite teams win on nights when they are erratic. The Celtics missed 20 of their first 25 3-point attempts — their preferred way to score — while Tatum was uncharacteristically off and never got untracked.
The nucleus of the second-half response was a defense that forced 14 turnovers, including five from Josh Giddey after the Celtics figured out he likes to turn his back to his defender when dribbling under pressure. Derrick White and Payton Pritchard took advantage and began making the Thunder uncomfortable.
A team that scored 145 points Sunday against the New York Knicks could barely get the ball into the frontcourt on various possessions. The Celtics, a team that is learning how to close out games and win consistently, capitalized on a team that’s not yet at that level.
“That’s kind of what we talked about in the locker room,” Tatum said. “It wasn’t pretty. And OKC might not have the best record but that’s a talented offensive team. I think it was good for us to face some adversity and figure it out. Everybody contributed. I was extremely proud with the way that we responded, the way we competed. It wasn’t pretty. That’s a good win.”
A win just as meaningful as those over Denver, Philadelphia, Miami, or Memphis because it was a classic trap game, facing an inferior opponent on the third game in four nights and prior to an important three-game road trip. The Celtics can’t only get up for the contenders on their schedule. They have to remain consistent enough to win on nights when they’re not supposed to, when it isn’t easy, when the 3-ball isn’t falling, or the officiating is strange.
“We have the ability to play in different ways but when someone doesn’t have it, the next guy has to be ready,” Celtics interim coach Joe Mazzulla said. “I thought that’s what we did. There’s going to be moments like that. There’s going to be moments where things just aren’t going our way.”
Games like this give the Celtics confidence they can win games with defense. Yes, they scored 126 points, including 20 in the second half from Marcus Smart, but the offense was erratic at best, they were 10 for 37 from the 3-point line, while Brown and Tatum were a combined 1 for 14.
The Celtics can’t be a team that only wins when the 3-point shot is falling. That’s the definition of a pretender. There have to be other ways to win, whether it be defense or rebounding or focusing the offense on Smart, who did a majority of his scoring in the paint, taking advantage of matchups and his improved post game.
“We all know all eyes are going to be on [Brown and Tatum] but on nights like this, the floor opened up for me and I just happened to make the right read,” Smart said. “With Jayson and Jaylen on the floor, a lot of times I’ll get the other team’s worst defender and that’s probably their best scorer on the offensive end. So I’m just taking what the game gives me.”
Depth was the primary reason the Celtics prevailed. Derrick White scored 16 points in 33 minutes and was a plus-21, while Pritchard is capitalizing on his increased playing time because of Malcolm Brogdon’s hamstring injury and is playing with energy and hustle.
They realized that a couple of positive possessions on both sides would stave off the Thunder and get another impressive win. Not all impressive wins come over impressive teams. The Celtics were sluggish and lackadaisical at times, primed to be beaten and chalk up a loss that may have significance with playoff seeding in April. But the Celtics are taking this early season seriously, even though fatigue may be setting in with three games in four nights.
Last season’s team didn’t take the early season as intently and it cost them in the long run. This year’s club learned from that disregard.