What the Celtics knew before Friday’s game with the Jazz is they would be far from sharp or energetic. They had just beaten the Bucks by 41 points on Thursday and didn’t return to Boston until mid-morning Friday because of flight issues.
The challenge for a team with championship aspirations is winning despite being less than its best. The Celtics have won on nights when they didn’t shoot well or committed numerous turnovers, but the combination of fatigue, an emotionally draining win, and a rested and capable opponent could have resulted in a dreary performance.
Friday’s 122-114 home win was anything but dreary. The Celtics spent their evening fighting off Jazz runs, moving the ball for open 3-pointers, and valiantly defending in the paint without their top two centers.
It’s overly simplistic to say Friday’s win was just as significant as Thursday’s win, but it was close. The Celtics needed to win Friday for their psyche. They needed to overcome a young and hungry opponent, despite how shorthanded they were.
Jayson Tatum needed to atone for his 15-point performance last month in Salt Lake City and react better to Will Hardy sending double teams. The Celtics needed to win because they don’t want to settle for the No. 2 seed with four games left.
They trail the Bucks by 1½ games with Milwaukee hosting Philadelphia on Sunday in what could be a pivotal game to determine who has home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. The Celtics’ chances of gaining that distinction remain slim, but they have bounced back from the disappointing loss in Washington and have recovered from a tough post-All-Star Break funk with nine wins in their past 12 games.
Of course, the Celtics will regret the losses at Washington, Utah, and Houston. And there are a handful of games they allowed to slip away, but the good news is they are playing good basketball at the right time, especially Tatum.
Tatum scored 39 a night after scoring 40, and is now 13 for his past 18 from the 3-point line after enduring a prolonged slump from beyond the arc.
There was a question as to whether he would play Friday. Tatum has been nursing a sore hip since a scary collision with Minnesota’s Rudy Gobert on March 15. The Celtics were considering resting Tatum, as they did with Al Horford and Robert Williams. Tatum does not like to rest, especially when the Celtics need a win and his All-NBA first-team status can be aided by another brilliant game.
“We just talked on the plane and we’re all kind of in this together,” Tatum said. “I just wanted to kind of go through it with the guys, rock out and play, and figure it out. And it was fun figuring it out, regardless of how the last 24 hours was. It was rewarding.”
Friday wasn’t supposed to be as pretty as Thursday. But it was going to be an indication of Joe Mazzulla’s coaching acumen and how well he adjusted after he was out-coached by close buddy Hardy in the first meeting. The Celtics moved the ball better, sought quality 3-point shots, and weren’t afraid to attack the rim, despite the presence of imposing rookie center Walker Kessler.
And Malcolm Brogdon showed in the past two games why he is the primary difference this season. The Celtics lacked depth during their NBA Finals run. They lacked a quality third scorer behind Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The past two nights, Brogdon sparked the Celtics offense.
Against the Bucks, Brogdon neutralized Jrue Holiday while attacking the paint for the layups. He combined for 33 points on 13 for 27 shooting these past two nights and sparked a Celtics run with three 3-pointers in a 90-second span of the third quarter.
“I thought when Jayson and Jaylen both came out, that lineup with Malcolm and Derrick [White], I thought they kind of spearheaded that lineup with pace,” Mazzulla said. “I thought Malcolm put on a small run by himself. We have the ability to play in different ways. We have a lot of depth. We can play small. We can play big. When Malcolm is at his best, he can provide the second unit with spark, and I thought he was great.”
The Celtics were scheduled to practice Sunday but Mazzulla mercifully canceled the session to give the players three days off before their showdown with the 76ers on Tuesday. They needed a break and it’s well deserved. They responded from Washington with two significant wins and the chance to play meaningful basketball in the final four games.
The travel snafu headed back to Boston is something the players used as motivation and fodder, not an excuse. They backed up their words following the Milwaukee win and were able to give their bigs some rest in the process, so it was a win-win.
The key now is to maintain this intensity, return well rested and ready for the final four games with a chance to steal the No. 1 seed.