The Celtics defeated one of the NBA’s most talented teams in ways they don’t usually win, or at least haven’t yet.
Boston raced to the league’s best record with shotmaking and the combined offensive prowess of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.
On Thursday, Tatum scored 1 point in the fourth quarter. The Celtics made one 3-pointer. They beat the Los Angeles Clippers, 116-110, at TD Garden with defense and depth.
As a team with championship aspirations progressing in an impressive run through 44 percent of the season, the Celtics are learning more about their capabilities and potential. There are going to be nights when Tatum misses all his shot attempts in the fourth quarter, as was the case against the Clippers.
There will be times the Celtics need to rely on their defense, which has been better in December. Thursday was a playoff atmosphere and the Celtics got enough defensive stops to win a slugfest.
“With the exception of a couple of turnovers, I thought we did a good job keeping our composure,” said assistant coach Damon Stoudamire, filling in for interim coach Joe Mazzulla. “The Clippers hit a lot of shots and they put a lot of pressure on our defense, but we just held our composure.”
The current four-game win streak has been a test for the Celtics, who had lost five of six previously while looking apathetic at times. They fought back to beat the Minnesota Timberwolves, played nearly flawlessly against the Milwaukee Bucks, pulled away from the young Houston Rockets, and then took care of business against perhaps the most talented team in the Western Conference.
The Clippers were fully healthy and had won five of seven since their Dec. 12 pasting of the Celtics in Los Angeles. Paul George and Kawhi Leonard are two of the most dynamic scorers in the game. Still, Brown and Tatum combined for 58 points while Derrick White and Marcus Smart combined for 32.
More importantly, the latter duo made key defensive plays. Especially White, whose contributions have improved this season, although his offensive numbers have fallen off considerably in December. White can earn more minutes and a bigger role if he can make shots and play steady defense. That was the case against the Clippers. He was 6-for-8 shooting and provided a key block of a George layup with 32.4 seconds left and the Celtics up 3.
Boston played two of the league’s best teams in the past four days and won impressively in different ways. The primary goal as 2023 arrives is to compile victories, get Robert Williams into basketball shape and integrated into the system, and gradually improve defensively to the point they reached last season.
The Celtics would have lost this game last season. Los Angeles rallied from an 11-point halftime deficit to take a 1-point lead entering the fourth quarter. Brown sparked a 16-9 run to begin the final period and Boston never trailed again.
“Those guys beat us up pretty bad in LA and we wanted to change the narrative,” Brown said. “I didn’t want to lose and we had to make plays when we needed to and it helped us win.”
There are going to be nights when the Celtics just don’t play that well or shots aren’t falling. The sign of a championship-caliber team is winning despite those issues. For the sixth time this month, the Celtics shot 30 percent or worse from behind the 3-point line. They combatted those struggles Thursday by scoring 54 points in the paint.
Brown and Tatum both attacked the rim, scoring buckets or getting to the free throw line. Perhaps in the long run it’s a blessing that those 3-pointers aren’t going down as often. It has forced the Celtics to find other ways to win.
Boston shot 58.8 percent in the Christmas Day win over the Bucks. They scored 139 points. It’s easier to win that way. Thursday’s win was more impressive because it was gritty, won by grabbing key rebounds, chasing down 50-50 balls, and protecting the rim.
Despite their choice to use 6-foot-4-inch Marcus Smart against 7-foot Ivica Zubac on several possessions, the Celtics won the rebounding battle, 49-41. The Clippers bullied Boston in Los Angeles, used their physicality to frustrate the Celtics, who didn’t play with the same fortitude they displayed in the rematch.
One of the most important characteristics for a championship caliber team is pride. Losses have to be taken personally. Home court has to be protected. Effort, even when shots aren’t falling, should never be questioned.
This was one of the best wins of the season because the Celtics were pushed. They faced adversity. They blew a double-digit lead, and they didn’t win with one of Tatum’s prolific scoring nights or on a barrage of 3-pointers. They won because they were the tougher and more resilient team, and those traits will prove valuable in the long run.
“Losing three games in a row, it was humbling and we knew we had to have better performances,” Stoudamire said. “The guys responded. I know they felt good about Christmas. Tonight we knew we would have our hands full. We were able to rise to the occasion. It was a good test for us because they kind of challenge you mentally and I thought we stayed strong.”