As Celtics guard Marcus Smart walked into the TD Garden interview room to talk about his team’s impressive 116-110 win over the Clippers late Thursday, he saw a familiar face in an unusual place, and could not help but smile. Assistant coach Damon Stoudamire had just wrapped up his news conference after guiding Boston to another win, with coach Joe Mazzulla still sidelined because of eye abrasions.
“Oh, [expletive]!” Smart said, flashing a wide grin. “Only coach undefeated in the league, baby. 2-0. That’s what I’m talking about.”
The two slapped hands as Stoudamire walked by, and Smart’s smile lingered well after that.
After a frustrating stretch in which the Celtics lost five of six games and dropped out of first place in the Eastern Conference, they have steadied themselves and reaffirmed their status as the league’s top team, before doubters had time to really creep in. The Celtics have won four in a row, including statement-making wins over the Bucks and Clippers, teams with championship aspirations similar to their own.
“It’s easy to let yourself go into those little lulls where you just get down,” Smart said. “And for us, we’re just trying to focus on not allowing ourselves to do that this year. We understand we’re human, it’s going to happen. We’re just trying to have less of those times. So, we’ve been doing a good job. We’ve got a good team.”
Before the game, Stoudamire said the Clippers reminded him of a 1990s team. He meant it as a compliment. They are rough and rugged, and they will do all they can to disturb an opponent’s primary options.
“Trying to make somebody else make a play,” Stoudamire said, “because for them, they can live with that.”
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown scored 29 points apiece, so they were hardly silenced. But their overall impact was reduced. The two combined to make just 3 of 19 3-pointers and had three assists.
Midway through the fourth quarter, when the Clippers were still lurking, Brown was out because of foul trouble and Tatum was facing constant double teams — a logical approach for the Clippers with Brown not there to make them pay.
Brown went to the bench after picking up his fifth foul on a charge with 5:32 left in the fourth and the Celtics clinging to a 104-99 lead. But over the next two minutes, Derrick White converted a 3-point play and found Grant Williams for a 3-pointer, and a steal and layup by Smart gave Boston a 112-102 lead.
“Just try to read the defense,” White said. “JT’s getting a lot of attention, so take what they’re giving me.”
Brown came back in and the Celtics tried to let their two stars carry them to the finish, but the duo combined to go 0 for 7 with a turnover over the final 2:50, allowing the Clippers to lurk.
A pull-up by Kawhi Leonard with 1:02 left pulled the Clippers within 113-110. After Tatum missed a jumper, Paul George had a chance to bring the Clippers even closer. Then White stepped in and swatted away his layup attempt.
“On a team like ours, where there’s so much depth, it makes it hard,” Stoudamire said. “But I think tonight, you see [White’s] all-around game. I thought he hit big shots as well as played great D. And that was a hell of a block. For me, he’s really a selfless player. And I think that’s why the guys like being around him, and he’s a joy to coach.”
At the other end, Tatum missed twice more before Brown pulled down an offensive rebound and was fouled. He hit both free throws, and Al Horford blocked Marcus Morris’s layup to seal the win.
White finished with 15 points, and Smart had 17 points and nine assists.
“It’s never going to be two guys against five or one guy against five,” Brown said. “It’s five on five. Sometimes we forget that because of the narratives and things like that, but we need each and every one of these guys on this team to be ready, to be focused, if we’re trying to do what we’re saying we’re trying to do.”
Malcolm Brogdon and Blake Griffin were out because of non-COVID illnesses. The Celtics made just 28.2 percent of their 3-pointers. Earlier this season they were mostly unable to overcome poor shooting nights, but they haven’t been as reliant on long-range shots recently, an encouraging trend.
“I just feel like we’re coming back together in all aspects of the game,” center Robert Williams said, “not just when our shots are falling.”
Leonard had 26 points and George added 24 for the Clippers. But the Celtics withstood those solid performances with a thorough, complete effort that will only make optimism surrounding this team swell.