SACRAMENTO – Two full days off in Northern California offered the Celtics a chance to reflect and energize for what turned into one of the season’s more critical games.
Defensive slippage or lackadaisical stretches against the Sacramento Kings, the league’s No. 1 offense, could result in an embarrassing ending to their six-game road trip. Instead, the Celtics collectively made sure to remain poised, impose their will, share the ball, and play with fortitude.
After withstanding an early Kings surge, the Celtics used an engaged Jayson Tatum and pinpoint shooting from Derrick White to take control in the second half and pull away for a 132-109 victory at the Golden 1 Center.
It was the Celtics’ easiest game of this 10-day sojourn and they proved to themselves the ability to dominate a quality opponent. The Kings were 11-3 since the All-Star Break and are fighting the Memphis Grizzlies for the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference.
They were the most difficult opponent of this trip, but the Celtics were completely prepared and played with force after dropping that disheartening 1-point decision to the Utah Jazz on Saturday.
Sacramento scored 24 points in the first 6 minutes, 24 seconds of the opening period, five of those on 3-point shots. The Kings looked to shoot the Celtics out of the gym. But the entrance of Robert Williams, back after an eight-game injury absence, helped reinforce the defense.
The Kings scored just 8 points in the rest of the period and never regained that offensive traction. Tatum, meanwhile, attacked the paint and finished with 36 points while Jaylen Brown added 27. White scored 20 along on five 3-pointers along with 10 assists.
“I think we came out with purpose,” Tatum said. “Obviously disappointing loss last game. It’s all about how you respond. We played how we know we’re supposed to play (Tuesday). A lot of it had to do with us responding from a loss and having our full team.”
The Celtics arrived in Sacramento on Sunday morning, nearly two days before the Kings, who finished a four-game road trip Monday in Salt Lake City. After the blazing start, the Kings looked a step slow, especially point guard De’Aaron Fox, who was a minus-34 in his 28-plus minutes.
Still, the Celtics had early issues with All-Star center Domantas Sabonis in the early going but used Robert Williams and Grant Williams and help defense to slow his production. After nine points and seven rebounds in the opening period, Sabonis finished with seven and six in the final three.
It was a satisfying win for the Celtics because it occurred against a top-notch opponent and ended an erratic trip in positive fashion. Boston was also able to extend its lead over the Philadelphia 76ers to one game for the No. 2 seed.
“I was pleased with the mindset we had; I was pleased with the approach we had, we were detailed,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said. “The most important thing is we managed the game, five turnovers. Whatever lineup we had, we had elite spacing. We made relatively elite decisions, which kept them out of transition.”
Mazzulla said he realizes the disappointment in coming home with a 4-2 record because the two losses were by a combined 3 points, including a crusher to lottery-bound Houston. The Celtics had a lead in all six games.
“If it wasn’t nine games before the regular season was over and if we weren’t in first place the entire year and the road trip was at the beginning of the year and we were 4-2, everybody would be happy,” Mazzulla said. “We have to maintain a level of perspective, understand that this was a hard trip and there were moments where we played really, really good basketball.”
The Celtics collected their 50th win for the second consecutive season and are five games ahead of last year’s pace. But a 7-6 record since the All-Star Break and losing their grip on first place in the Eastern Conference has slowed the team’s momentum and sapped their confidence.
Tuesday’s road win was perhaps their most impressive since the 3-point win at Philadelphia on Feb. 25 or the 29-point win at Dallas on Jan. 5. Since the All-Star Break the Celtics had been taking a series of big leads and then blowing them with erratic second halves.
They made sure there would be no breakdowns against the Kings. The Celtics prevailed in a third-quarter shootout, making 15 of 22 shots, including seven 3-pointers for a 15-point lead. Sacramento made a mini-run to slice the deficit to 12 in the early fourth quarter, but the Celtics squelched any chance for a comeback with a 9-0 run, including a three by White.
Sacramento coach Mike Brown then pulled his starters with five minutes left. The Celtics had outlasted their mirror images, won the shootout, and headed back home feeling better about their path to the playoffs.
“Easy assessment – they kicked our behinds starting with me,” Brown said. “We all got our behinds kicked. There’s nothing tricky or hidden behind what I’m saying. They switched everything and turned us over with 14 turnovers and they capitalized off of almost every turnover. You got two guys like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, they’re a load and we didn’t have an answer for them. You got to give the Celtics credit. Nothing else I can say besides what the facts are.”