The Celtics’ game against the Hornets Friday night at TD Garden often felt like an exhibition. Derrick White made six consecutive 3-pointers en route to a career-high 33 points and gave a shrug when one bounced all around the rim and in. Jayson Tatum flicked away defenders as if they were pieces of popcorn. Blake Griffin soared in for a follow-slam that looked like footage from a decade earlier. Mike Muscala, acquired in a trade one day earlier, pulled on his new uniform, stepped onto the court, and scored 12 points in just 16 minutes.
It was easy to forget that Boston was playing without three of its starters, with Marcus Smart (ankle), Al Horford (knee swelling), and Jaylen Brown (facial fracture) all sidelined. On most nights, those absences would pose significant challenges for the Celtics. But this season, the Hornets have rarely posed significant challenges against anyone.
The Celtics roared to a 28-point third-quarter lead thanks to another night of scorching long-range shooting. And although their final 15 minutes were far from perfect, the cushion left room for error, as they secured a wire-to-wire 127-116 win.
“I love the fact that our guys play hard regardless and just continue to just execute, execute, execute on both ends of the floor,” coach Joe Mazzulla said. “Because when we do, we always get a great shot for either ourselves or the guy next to us.”
The Celtics hit 25 of 55 3-pointers, tied for the third-most made threes in a game in franchise history. Yet somehow, it hardly felt like a barrage. There were plenty of open looks in the fourth quarter that could have inflicted even more damage.
Tatum, who erupted for 51 points when these teams met last month, poured in 41, and mostly did as he pleased against a defense that displayed just half-hearted attempts to stop him. The only bad part of the night for Tatum and the Celtics was that the 28-point lead was whittled down to 14 with seven minutes left in the fourth, and Tatum was summoned from the bench to finish off Charlotte before its comeback became more serious.
“In those situations, the second unit gets opportunities and you’d love for them to close it out and get those reps and things like that,” Tatum said, “But you understand in the course of a game, leads are never safe regardless of a team’s record. They are always capable of making plays and knocking down shots.”
Tatum has been needed in similar situations several times this year. Mazzulla pushed back against the suggestion that it was disappointing considering Tatum is already second in the NBA in minutes per game, pointing out that the NBA is filled with good teams capable of turning big leads into small ones. And with Brown, Horford, and Smart all sidelined, there were fewer options. Regardless, it all worked out.
The first half belonged to White, who was traded from the Spurs to the Celtics exactly one year ago Friday. He said several times last year that adjusting to a new team and city in the middle of the season was challenging. There were games when his confidence as a shooter was rattled, and he turned down some open looks.
At the start of this season, Celtics assistant coach Ben Sullivan worked on helping White get comfortable launching from beyond the arc without even giving it a second thought. He has rarely hesitated this year, and this game was probably the best example. He fired up catch-and-shoot attempts in rhythm and with confidence.
“When I made like the first four, you kind of get the green light to do whatever you want at that moment,” White said, smiling after finishing with eight 3-pointers. “But I still kind of try not to just take shots outside of the offense. So, shout out to the guys for finding me, and I should knock them down.”
White is now quite comfortable here, and Muscala hopes he soon will be, too. Boston acquired the 6-foot-10-inch big man from the Thunder on Thursday in exchange for wing Justin Jackson and a pair of second-round picks.
Muscala spent Friday morning receiving a crash course in Celtics basketball from the coaches, who tried to distill the team’s offensive and defensive schemes in time for tip-off. He instantly showed his value as a shooter, drilling his first 3-point attempt and finishing 4 for 8 from beyond the arc, but he acknowledged that the defensive schemes were more challenging.
But there is plenty of time to learn all of that. And with the Celtics still sitting comfortably atop the NBA at 40-16, they now have more depth to approach the final two months of the regular season however they wish, before more important challenges arrive.