The Celtics entered Wednesday night’s game against the Trail Blazers riding a three-game losing streak, tied for their longest this season. That’s certainly not bad this late in the year. But the manner in which this skid unfolded seemed to leave a scar.
The Celtics coughed up double-digit leads in all three losses. They gave up a 28-point edge against the Nets, the largest blown advantage in the NBA this season. They lost in double-overtime to the Knicks when Al Horford’s potential game-winner skidded off the rim. They lost in overtime to the Cavaliers after Grant Williams missed two free throws with 0.8 seconds left in regulation.
It was a lot. It wasn’t great.
So even as Boston bolted to a double-digit lead in the first half Wednesday and stretched it to 21 midway through the third quarter, it did not feel permanent. When Portland sliced the deficit to 13 with 2:24 left in the third, there were audible murmurs from the TD Garden crowd.
Not again. Not here. Not against this below-average Blazers team.
This time, the Celtics did not wobble. They closed the quarter with an 11-2 burst, led by as many as 27 in the fourth, and coasted to a breezy 115-93 win. It was a rare game lopsided enough for Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to watch the fourth quarter from the bench.
That was a common occurrence during the second half of last season, when Boston routinely pummeled opponents en route to the Finals. But this year, which has already included 11 overtime games, has felt more tense.
“It’s important,” Horford said of maintaining the lead. “It’s what we needed. It’s what we’ve been talking about.”
With the victory, Boston pulled within two games of the first-place Bucks in the Eastern Conference.
Tatum, who entered the night averaging a league-leading 37.5 minutes per game, had 30 points and 7 rebounds in just 30 minutes, 44 seconds — a welcome respite. With Robert Williams still sidelined because of a strained hamstring, Derrick White remained in the starting lineup and continued to produce, with 21 points, 7 assists, and 5 rebounds.
This Portland team is somewhat feeble, but it has one of the world’s most dangerous scorers, guard Damian Lillard. Boston was determined to limit Lillard’s transition opportunities and was mostly successful, holding Portland to 9 fast-break points, about half its season average.
Lillard still scored 27, but the Blazers made just 36.6 percent of their shots and 28.2 percent of their 3-pointers.
“I think we did a good job, especially with Dame pushing in transition, of showing a crowd and showing bodies,” White said. “He’s one of the top players in the league, and [we were] trying to slow him down any way possible. It’s not a one-person job.”
Even though Portland missed 52 shots, it grabbed offensive rebounds on just six of them. This has been a growing issue for the Celtics, who surrendered 10 offensive rebounds in just the fourth quarter and overtime on Monday. Portland’s smaller lineups made it less fearsome, but it was still a sign of progress.
With just 15 games left in the regular season, coach Joe Mazzulla continues to experiment with lineups and combinations. It’s been a challenging task since much of the maneuvering has been dictated by injuries.
But even with Robert Williams out, frontcourt players Grant Williams, Luke Kornet, and Mike Muscala did not appear until the fourth quarter Wednesday, when the outcome was all but decided.
Mazzulla said Monday if the Celtics are to win a title, they’re going to need Grant Williams to be a key piece. But his opportunities have been scattered since the All-Star break. Even though he entered the night averaging 27.2 minutes per game, he has played more than 18 just once in Boston’s last six.
“I think the biggest thing is for him to continue to work and stay ready and do the things that he needs to do. And he’s been great at that,” Horford said. “Grant has been very professional, very positive, and, when he’s getting his opportunities, he’s making the most of them. And as a team, we’re just rallying together.”
Robert Williams is expected to return during the upcoming six-game road trip that starts Saturday against the Hawks, potentially giving the Celtics a chance to use the regular starting lineup that has played just 81 minutes together all season.
“I don’t know if we’re going to go on a winning streak,” Mazzulla said. “I have no idea what’s going to happen. But I know we have habits that we’ve had the entire year. We’ve gone through small stretches of those habits waning. Great teams just bounce back quicker.”