At the start of this season, the Celtics roared to the top of the NBA with scorching 3-point shooting. Then they fell back in large part because their long-range attack regressed.
Coach Joe Mazzulla did not want his team’s success to be distilled down to whether those shots went in. He insisted that his team had more than enough talent, toughness, and togetherness to win in other ways.
Monday night at TD Garden, against a pesky Bulls team that has caused fits for Boston this season, those 3-pointers, for the most part, did not go in. They caromed off the rim or occasionally missed it altogether.
Boston connected on 11 of 41 shots from beyond the arc (26.8 percent), and still remained in control for most of its 107-99 victory, its third in a row. It was the team’s lowest 3-point percentage in a win this season, and the crummy shooting actually created optimism.
“I’d still like to shoot a lot of open shots, because it shows that we’re spaced,” Mazzulla said. “It shows we’re playing fast and it shows that we’re creating two-on-ones all over the floor. So we have to continue to shoot with confidence, but it can’t be our identity, just shooting. It has to be executing.
“Games like that, where we’re able to kind of tough it out just by making winning plays throughout the game, are important.”
Although Boston’s 3-point shooting was generally sour, two big ones were converted, helping it hold off the Bulls, who nearly erased a 16-point second-half deficit.
The first, by Grant Williams, initially caromed so high that fans could be heard groaning, assuming a bad ending was coming. But after touching every part of the rim, it slid through the net and stretched Boston’s lead to 8 with less than four minutes left. The second, a dart from the right corner by Al Horford, rattled in with just 25.5 seconds left, after Chicago had pulled within 2 points.
That basket came on a pass from Jayson Tatum, who had correctly assumed that he would face a fierce double-team, forcing someone else to finish off this night. He slid a simple offering to Horford, and the veteran big man made the Bulls pay.
“Trusting your teammate,” Tatum said, “In those situations, it’s all about just making the right play, whether that’s for somebody else or for myself. Credit to Al. That’s a big-time shot.”
Tatum finished with 32 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 assists, strengthening his case to be voted into the All-Star Game as a starter this month. Boston’s other likely All-Star, Jaylen Brown (19 points), struggled through a 7-for-21 shooting night and missed all eight of his 3-pointers. Grant Williams scored 20 points off the bench.
Guard Marcus Smart sat out because of a knee contusion he suffered during the second half of Saturday’s win over the Spurs. But his absence created an opening for Robert Williams’s first start of the season. The center, who had come off the bench since making his season debut Dec. 16 following offseason left knee surgery, had 6 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 blocks in a season-high 23 minutes.
It’s unclear whether he’ll remain with the starting unit when Smart returns, pushing Derrick White back to the bench. But it was another step as Williams moves toward being the fulcrum of a defense that was the NBA’s best last season, but slipped without him.
“He’s kind of like that blanket,” Horford said. “We just rely on him and his activity and energy. I really enjoy playing alongside him.”
The Bulls’ hopes appeared dashed when star DeMar DeRozan left the game because of a quadriceps injury midway through the third quarter with his team trailing, 74-61. But Zach LaVine scored 15 of his team-high 27 points in the fourth quarter and gave Chicago a chance.
After the Celtics pushed back one Bulls run and used a 7-0 burst to take a 96-84 lead with 5:33 left, Chicago answered with a 7-0 run of its own and made it 96-91 on a LaVine 3-pointer with 3:42 remaining.
LaVine added another 3-pointer at the 2:17 mark that pulled his team within 99-97.
With the Celtics’ lead still 2, Brown missed a tough midrange jumper and LaVine created space for an open baseline jumper that rattled in and out with 50 seconds to play.
At the other end, Tatum found Horford, whose 3-pointer rattled and stayed in, making it 104-99 with 25.5 seconds left. After LaVine missed a 3-pointer, Tatum put the finishing touches on the win by leaking out for a dunk as he was fouled.
“I was pleased with the focus from our group,” Horford said. “From the beginning, we sustained it. They made a really good run at the end, but we didn’t panic.”