Even though the Celtics entered Friday night within striking distance of the NBA’s top record, little has come easily for them. Unlike the second half of last season, when Boston turned one opponent after another into mulch, even successful nights this year have tended to be tense.
But the Celtics could be finding their rhythm just in time.
They rolled to a second consecutive dominant win, this one a 120-95 victory against a Pacers team that had given them trouble this season.
“It means we’re playing well,” forward Jayson Tatum said. “We’re sharing the ball, we’re getting shots, getting stops. And it builds confidence, I guess. We’ve had a lot of overtime games, so I guess we’re due for some blowouts.”
Tatum scored 34 points and Jaylen Brown added 27 to lead the Celtics, who were sparked by a strong defensive effort after a sleepy opening quarter. The Pacers made only 4 of 26 3-pointers, committed 17 turnovers, and scored just 5 second-chance points.
Observations from the game:
⋅ Center Robert Williams came off the bench for the second consecutive game after missing nearly three weeks with a strained hamstring. He played just 15:30 but was impactful, registering 4 points, 8 rebounds, 3 steals, and 3 blocks.
Several Celtics acknowledged Williams’s mere presence in the post allows the other defenders to play more freely and take more risks, knowing that such an elite safety net is behind them.
“I think when you know you have a guy like that, it obviously jolts your defensive joy to be a little bit more aggressive, because you just feel that,” coach Joe Mazzulla said. “Rob just has an intangible where guys just feel protected because of his ability to do that.”
For now, at least, it appears the Celtics intend to limit Williams’s playing time. When Brown was asked about Williams’s impact, he first pointed out the team just needs him to stay healthy.
It will be interesting to see if Mazzulla goes back to the normal starting group before the regular season ends. The group was dominant last year but has played fewer than 100 minutes together this season, and the results in that small sample size have not been great.
Williams’s replacement as a starter, guard Derrick White, has had an excellent season and on Friday tallied 22 points and 9 assists. And by staggering Al Horford and Williams, the Celtics don’t need to rely on other bigs as much, if at all.
“[Williams] covers up a lot of mistakes, flying around,” White said. “It’s fun out there to play with him. You never really know where he is. He’s just getting his feet underneath him, so he’s going to be better and better each game.”
⋅ When Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton was called for a technical foul in the first quarter, Brown stepped to the line and missed the free throw. It was the second time that’s happened recently, and Brown is an odd choice in these situations.
Tatum usually gets the nod but was on the bench. Brown was the best player on the court, but also a 77.4 percent free-throw shooter. White, meanwhile, is shooting 87.4 percent from the line. At some point, stats should supersede star power.
⋅ Tatum entered the night shooting a career-low 34.4 percent from the 3-point line and appears to be putting an emphasis on getting to the rim. He was 10 for 15 on 2-pointers against the Pacers. After attempting 10 or more 3-pointers in five of six games, he has taken fewer than 10 in each of the last three, two of which were lopsided wins.
“Just reading the defense, taking what they’re giving,” Tatum said. “Indiana, they’ve got Myles Turner, but they’re not like a big team, so just finding angles and trying to get to the rim.”
⋅ The Celtics led at halftime, 60-55, then one blistering early in the third quarter created separation. After a pair of Brown free throws, Marcus Smart came up with a steal that led to a Tatum layup. Brown then stole the ball in the backcourt and drilled a 3-pointer from the top of the key. Boston needed just 27 seconds to go on the 7-0 run, and its lead never really felt in danger after that.
The Celtics finished the game with 11 steals and 6 blocked shots. There was a different level of activity and attention to detail on the defensive end, particularly during the second half.
“We did a pretty good job of just being physical, rebounding, and then we were able to get out and run from there,” White said.
⋅ The Celtics led by 28 points almost midway through the fourth quarter when Brown checked back in, joining Horford and Tatum. The Pacers, meanwhile, completely emptied their bench and went to their third-stringers. It was an odd decision by Mazzulla given the circumstances. He eventually pulled his stars with just over four minutes left.
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.