NEW YORK — When Marcus Smart had to miss the Celtics’ previous two games because of a knee contusion, it was not easy for him. He said he would scream at his phone or his television while pulling for his teammates and plead with his new fiancé to give him some space.
“Just sitting and watching,” he said, “was brutal for me.”
Of course he had faith in this group. He just wished he could be there to help. But as he stepped back and watched from a different angle as Boston grabbed two more impressive wins, this team’s depth was crystalized.
On Thursday night, with Jaylen Brown sidelined due to a strained adductor, Al Horford resting at the end of a back-to-back, and Jayson Tatum scuffling, that depth would be tested once again, this time against the NBA’s hottest team.
But the Celtics have insisted all year that dynamic sixth man Malcolm Brogdon would start for most other teams. They have insisted that Payton Pritchard, who has fallen out of the rotation when this group is full, would have an essential role on most other squads.
In this game, Brogdon and Pritchard combined to make seven consecutive baskets during a key stretch that started late in the third quarter and bled into the fourth, helping Boston seize a 109-98 win, its fifth in a row.
“They are the reason we won tonight,” Tatum said of Boston’s bench unit.
Of course, the task was simplified by the absence of Nets superstar Kevin Durant, who missed his first game since spraining his right knee. In recent weeks, Brooklyn had begun to announce its status as Boston’s biggest competition in the Eastern Conference, and perhaps the entire NBA.
After getting pushed around by the Celtics at Barclays Center in a Dec. 4 loss, the Nets rolled off 14 wins in 15 games, briefly pulling within a game of Boston.
But the Celtics (31-12) have once again put some room between themselves and the rest of the NBA with this recent surge. They are back on pace to win 59 games, and they are three games ahead of the second-place Nets in the East after navigating a challenging stretch of their schedule.
“It’s important,” Brogdon said. “It’s less about the No. 1 seed, more so about us not taking steps backwards but taking steps forwards. We’re trying to see the bigger picture here. The No. 1 seed is great, but at the end of the day, we’d rather be peaking when we get to the playoffs.”
The extra cushion, combined with the continued strong play by the backups, could make it easier for the Celtics to prioritize rest and health over the coming weeks. Coach Joe Mazzulla said before Thursday’s game that Brown could be sidelined for a week or two because of the strain he suffered during Wednesday’s win over the New Orleans Pelicans.
After the Brooklyn win, Tatum revealed that he’s dealing with some left hand pain. He played Thursday’s game with his middle and ring fingers taped together and continues to deal with wrist soreness that has lingered since the Finals.
Tatum (20 points) air-balled three 3-pointers and was just 7 for 22 from the field against the Nets. He’s also among the league leaders in minutes per game and has simply looked tired at times.
“But it’s good when you can laugh it off,” he said of the missed shots. “We still won, so it made the night better.”
Boston, which improved to 7-0 this season on the tail end of back-to-back sets, won this game with its balance. Eight players scored eight points or more. Smart had 16 points, 10 assists, and 6 rebounds in his return, and off the bench, Brogdon had 16 points while Pritchard added 9 in just 14 minutes.
With Smart and Tatum on the bench at the start of the fourth quarter, Pritchard and Brogdon converted two field goals apiece over a two-minute stretch, sparking the 8-2 run that gave the Celtics a 92-84 lead.
“Me and Payton were talking about it on the bench, just playing faster,” Brogdon said. “I thought we came out, we played a little bit slow. At times, we struggled getting shots, good shots, easy shots in the halfcourt. We just picked up the pace, tried to push it a little bit. Even if we didn’t get a transition bucket, we got multiple paint attacks.”
At one point early in that run, Tatum and Smart had walked to the scorer’s table to check in before Mazzulla pulled them back and allowed the backups to keep pushing.
“Man, I was ecstatic, ecstatic for those guys,” Tatum said. “The way Payton came in and contributed, what Luke [Kornet] did, Malcolm. That’s big. That just shows how good of a team we are. Those guys can keep a lead and extend a lead.”
Boston appeared in control before Brooklyn made a mini-run, pulling within 96-89 on a T.J. Warren 3-pointer with 5:43 left. But the Nets were held to just nine points for the rest of the game and the Celtics coasted to the finish.