PORTLAND, Ore.—For most of Friday night, the Celtics swarmed, trapped and frustrated Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard. It appeared that their defensive effort would be sufficient, and that it would help them roll to a rare low-stress win.
But few players are capable of turning a quiet night into a loud one like Lillard can. And after the Celtics pushed ahead by 21 points in the third quarter, Lillard erupted for 23 during a stretch of just 6 minutes, 30 seconds in the fourth.
Some uncomfortable, here-we-go-again vibes crept in. But fortunately for the Celtics, the cushion they’d built for most of the night turned out to be ample, as they held on for a 126-112 win.
“Dame went off,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said. “We still were able to keep our poise and respond.”
Lillard had the ball with his team trailing by just 8 points with 2:13 left when he squared up at the right arc. The Portland fans who’d mostly given up were suddenly standing at their seats and wondering if something magical might be imminent.
But as Lillard tried to draw a foul with a rip-through move, Smart poked the ball away, recovered it while sitting down, and flipped a pass to Al Horford, whose outlet pass led to a Jaylen Brown dunk.
It was one of four steals for Smart, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year who said Wednesday morning that his play at that end of the floor had been mediocre this season. Portland did not pull within single digits again.
Jayson Tatum had 34 points and 12 rebounds to lead Boston. His long-range slump continued with 2 for 11 3-point shooting, but his aggression was impactful. He made 16 of 18 free throws and put constant pressure on Portland’s defense. Brown added 27 points for the Celtics, who were without Malcolm Brogdon (Achilles’), Robert Williams (hamstring) and Payton Pritchard (heel).
Lillard finished with 41 points—25 in the fourth quarter—but ultimately took a bit too long to heat up.
The Celtics hit a low point after losing to the last-place Rockets Monday night. But several players said that in recent days coach Joe Mazzulla had been holding them more accountable during film sessions and team meetings, stressing that they must maintain their focus and maintain their intensity level when lulls arise.
These last two wins have hardly been perfect, and they have not come against dominant competition, but the team views them as progress.
“I felt like we needed to get kind of brought down and lock in on the things we need to do,” Horford said. “This is the time of the year where teams can’t wait until that next step, but you have to play these games. You have to. And we need to continue to play good basketball and get better. So [Mazzulla] just challenged us in that way and our group understands it and we’re doing a good job with it.”
With Friday’s win, the Celtics pulled within 1½ games of the first-place Bucks in the Eastern Conference standings with just 11 games remaining. It appears that the March 30 showdown in Milwaukee, which will determine the tiebreaker between these teams, could ultimately decide the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.
That remains an important goal for the Celtics, but they insist that over the next few weeks they are more focused on regaining the momentum they created during their dominant start to this season. Friday was one step.
“I felt like we had that competitive nature again,” Mazzulla said. “I felt like we had that identity. I felt that pop to us. It’s important that we keep that edge, that identity. We still have to clean up our turnovers, but, a lot of good things.”
The Celtics held a double-digit lead for most of the night and used a 9-0 run near the end of the third quarter to seize an 89-68 lead, their largest. Boston remained in control deep into the fourth before Lillard found a rhythm.
His 3-pointer with 9:07 left pulled the Blazers within 98-83, and that was all he needed. He was 6 for 6 during his eruption, with three 3-pointers and eight free throws. His foul shots with 2:35 left pulled Portland within 113-105, and he had a chance to bring his team even closer moments later.
But Smart’s steal led to a Brown dunk before Horford finished off the win with a 3-pointer that stretched the lead to 13. After hitting that shot, the mild-mannered forward stomped across midcourt and demonstrably waved his arms to indicate that the game was over. There would be no Celtics collapse this time.
“Coach challenged us here to be better as a group, be more focused and really get back to who we are,” Horford said. “And we’ve responded.”
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.