Considering the level of completion and the actual importance of the game, it should come as no surprise the Celtics extinguished the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday at TD Garden.
For the third consecutive game, the Celtics made things easy on themselves, pulling away from their lottery-bound opponents, 137-93, to strengthen their hold on second place in the Eastern Conference and creep closer to the Milwaukee Bucks for first.
There’s a reason why the Celtics lead the NBA in point differential — boosted to plus-6.4 after the three wins by a combined 92 points — they are an elite club when they play with focus and execution. And for the past week, the Celtics have been getting back to themselves.
It’s the perfect time for such a renaissance. The Celtics returned home from a bumpy 4-2 road trip coming off an impressive 23-point win at Sacramento.
What they have had trouble with all season is playing to the level of their opponents.
The Spurs do not play at a high level. They are injury ridden and have been in tank mode for the past 60 games. Yet, the Celtics took them seriously, pulling away late in the second quarter behind Jaylen Brown and Malcolm Brogdon.
“You think because of the situation it’s supposed to be a 15-, 20-point game in the first quarter and I actually liked the fact that it wasn’t,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said. “We kept playing and managed our own expectations as far as what it’s supposed to be and we played, we executed and [we were] able to break the game open.”
The Boston organization has to begin looking toward resting key players, and Sunday was optimal for giving Jayson Tatum a day off. They shouldn’t need Tatum to beat the San Antonio Spurs, and they really didn’t.
Brown, playing the best basketball of his career, scored 41 points with 13 rebounds, toying with the Spurs in various stretches, using his improved body control to get to the rim with ease. He went a mind-boggling 16 of 19 inside the 3-point line and played as if he was the best player on the floor.
While Brown has made headlines for his recent comments on the city of Boston and his Celtics future, he’s been ascending on the floor, and the Celtics desperately need a premium Brown for a long playoff run.
“Just emphasizing who we want to be,” Brown said of the recent resurgence. “Communicate more, it’s that time of the year.
The key in the final seven games is to get Tatum back untracked. Perhaps the rest will offer a boost in energy but the good sign is the Celtics resemble a team capable of returning to the NBA Finals.
Derrick White, the former Spur who was lauded pregame by coach Gregg Popovich, has blossomed this season into a reliable scorer and more aggressive penetrator to the basket. He is averaging 17.4 points since Feb. 1, playing with more confidence and assertiveness.
Brogdon has dealt with nagging injuries but has found a definitive role off the Boston bench, allowed to score freely when he enters the game. Mazzulla is slowly working Robert Williams back into the rotation and he’s beginning to look completely comfortable playing longer stretches.
The primary goal in the final seven games is to grab the No. 1 seed, and the Celtics will certainly have to win Thursday at Milwaukee to have a chance.
The Bucks have two more games left on a four-game road trip, including a Wednesday tilt at Indiana, meaning they will enter Thursday’s showdown with tired legs. The Celtics winning their last three games and seven of their past nine has put them in position to steal that No. 1 seed.
Brown said he’s more concerned with consistency, with the Celtics reaching their apex than where they will begin their playoff journey.
“I was more focused on how we’re playing than seeding,” Brown said. “Even though we were the best team in the league for a large majority of the season, there were stretches in the season where we were winning games because we were better than teams. But we weren’t playing the way we were capable of. We kind of got comfortable at different moments. We would pull games out even though we won, everybody would be happy but in reality it shouldn’t have even been close.
“Now with us in the hunt again, everybody focuses and plays the way we needed to play.”
The key for the Celtics is maintaining this level of play for the final seven games. Winning at Milwaukee won’t mean nearly as much if they lose Tuesday at Washington. Everything they have sought is still attainable 90 percent into the regular season.
They have experienced their share of lapses and disappointing losses in recent weeks, but the Celtics galvanized after that heartbreaking defeat at Utah and it has resulted in three impressive wins and the confidence they can still edge Milwaukee for that No. 1 seed.