NEW YORK — The Celtics have been a resilient bunch this season, rising to the challenge almost every night, realizing that the rest of the Eastern Conference is using them as a measuring stick, as Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau admitted prior to Monday’s game.
The Celtics may meet New York in the second round, and the Knicks, after the acquisition of versatile wing Josh Hart, are ramping for a deep playoff run and feel they’re ready for such a matchup.
Monday’s 109-94 win at Madison Square Garden is an indication the Knicks are making progress. They were the better team all night, frustrating the Celtics by making difficult shots and capitalizing on officiating that sent New York to the free throw line 34 times.
Boston attempted 14.
Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla was asked pregame Monday about the free throw disparity Saturday against the Philadelphia 76ers, with most of Boston’s fouls coming against behemoth Joel Embiid. He admitted the Celtics committed those fouls. He had no problem with the calls.
When questioned about Monday, Mazzulla thought intently and said: “How can I say this without getting in trouble? It wasn’t the same as the Philly game.”
In that game, the Celtics hung close, then used Jaylen Brown (who missed Monday because of personal reasons) to rally before Tatum hit the winner. Tatum wasn’t around for the final minutes Monday. He received his first NBA ejection for arguing separate calls in the second half. The first tech came after he was pushed in the back on a two-handed dunk and hung on the rim for several moments to steady himself.
The second occurred with 3 minutes, 46 second left when Tatum got hit squarely on the arm by Julius Randle after releasing a 3-pointer. He screamed at official JB DeRosa, who tossed him. Hart responded by motioning Tatum to leave the floor as the MSG crowd jeered in delight.
Then the “Boston sucks” chants began to rain down as the Celtics were clearly defeated, playing one of their worst offensive games of the season.
Nights like these are common in the NBA, but the Celtics are going to have to adjust quicker and more resoundingly when 3-point shots aren’t falling. That was the source of their early frustration before it shifted to the officiating. The Celtics made their first 3-pointer and then missed their next 15.
They had success scoring on 2-pointers but the Knicks countered with numerous big shots, especially from sixth man Immanuel Quickley, whose 23 points were his most in 21 games. The Knicks stymied the Celtics by hitting a series of difficult, well-defended shots, and Boston’s counter was more 3-point attempts.
There are times when the Celtics have to make their own offensive luck, attack the basket more, try to create more fouls. They made four more shots than New York in the second half, but had just four free throws. They didn’t score any easy points Monday, and that has to be an emphasis of improvement.
“I thought we played good basketball. I thought we moved it. I thought we got the shots we wanted,” reserve Malcolm Brogdon said. “That’s a good defensive team, especially in the halfcourt. We got the shots we wanted. We just didn’t make a lot, especially from the perimeter. We’re used to shooting a good percentage from three, and I think we let that affect our defense a good amount. They had a good game plan for us.”
The Celtics will have to prepare themselves for more defenses that protect the paint and force contested 3-pointers, including Wednesday against the Cavaliers, another potential second-round opponent. And while they’re likely to knock down more 3-pointers and play a smarter game, they’ll have to be better prepared for this type of physical basketball.
“They certainly played with more energy than us; it seemed like they played just a little harder,” forward/center Al Horford said. “I think they did send a message today and they were the better team. For us, it’s about learning from this and we have to make sure we do a better job and hold it down at the Garden [in Sunday’s rematch].
“These teams are trying to send a message and for us, it’s about continuing to get better as a group. [This] is a learning opportunity for our group.”
The Celtics have to view Sunday’s series finale against the Knicks as an opportunity to atone for their mistakes, especially Tatum, who has shot 24.1 percent from the 3-point arc since hitting 10 3-pointers in the Feb. 19 All-Star Game. Adding to his frustration are three free throw attempts in 73 minutes over the past two games and he finally boiled over in the fourth quarter, which is exactly what the Knicks wanted.
They wanted to expose the Celtics’ vulnerabilities, prove to themselves they can play with the league’s elite. There are some nights the Celtics seem to forget who they are and where they stand in the NBA. They have to take up the mantle as one of the league’s best seriously every night because slippage, such as Monday, will ensure their road to the NBA Finals is even more difficult than it has to be.