The storyline from Monday’s Celtics win over the New York Knicks shouldn’t be Jayson Tatum’s 17 fourth-quarter points, although he was brilliant in helping Boston pull away from its feisty rival.
The focus should be on the defense, the Celtics’ attention to detail in the second half, and their refusal to allow the Knicks to get easy shots, even though New York hung close by hitting the tough ones.
Eventually the Knicks were going to level off, and the Celtics responded like superior teams do — allowing Tatum to put them to sleep with 3-point shooting.
The 114-98 win should be a satisfying one for the Celtics because they’re facing a team that’s physical, well coached and hardly intimidated by their star power. Boston has won three straight since its loss to Philadelphia, all against division opponents by an average of almost 18 points.
They weren’t at their absolute best Monday. They allowed too many early offensive rebounds. The Knicks stayed ahead with pinpoint 3-point shooting, as point guard Jalen Brunson was allowed to dribble into his preferred spots on the elbow and flick his smooth, left-handed jumper.
Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla doesn’t want all these games to be easy. He knows blowout wins look pretty but won’t push his club to another level. They need to be challenged, and the Knicks — even without RJ Barrett, who sat out with a migraine — outplayed the Celtics in the first half.
Perhaps in past years, this would have continued throughout the game. But instead of shooting themselves into control, they defended their way there.
“I thought we did a great job of responding and playing the entire second half,” Mazzulla said. “The one thing about (the Knicks), they hit really tough shots and it makes you uncomfortable and you have to decide are you willing to continue to let them make those or do you have to adjust?
“We did a good job of paying attention to detail, taking away their strengths and knocking them off rhythm.”
The Celtics implemented full-court presses, trapped strongman Julius Randle, blitzed and harassed Immanuel Quickley, who torched the Celtics for 24 points in 28 minutes in the Opening Night meeting. The Celtics paid attention to detail this time, holding Quickley to 7 points on 1-for-10 shooting, chasing him all over the floor, not allowing him to roam to the rim.
The various defenses, the emphasis on defensive rebounding and the hard contests of shots pushed the Knicks into disarray offensively. Suddenly, a dead-even heavyweight fight turned into a 12th-round TKO (15-round fight, of course). The Celtics’ relentlessness wore down their opponent, and that’s the way superior teams should win — using all of their strengths.
“Any fight you’re gonna have bruises,” Mazzulla said about the game’s physicality. “I heard a great analogy: If you get in a fight and you don’t have any bruises, it’s called bullying. You get into a fight and you have bruises, it’s called a real fight.
“So I love games like this because it’s going to reveal who we are and what we’ve been doing and where we need to get better. I thought our guys just stuck with it with the right mindset.”
Tatum canned four 3-pointers in the fourth quarter after missing his first six, as the Celtics overwhelmed the Knicks down the stretch. They outscored New York 62-45 in the second half, proving they were the superior team.
Navigating through an 82-game schedule is going to prove constant challenges, opponents that play above their heads, early foul trouble, below average shooting. But the Celtics have enough elements to win on every night, even when the offense is erratic, because eventually the offense will find its rhythm.
This time it was Tatum, irritated by a technical foul called by Gediminas Petraitis, who ear-hustled Tatum’s words from about 25-feet away after a questionable foul call. It was his first technical foul of the season, and he responded with a pair of threes over a 62-second span to seal it in the final 3 minutes.
“Joe told us in the first half we got outplayed; they played harder,” Tatum said. “They were the tougher team and that was kind of unacceptable. But we [were] down only 1 and we were fortunate enough to be in that spot, so we knew we had a chance.”
Mazzulla blamed himself for not emphasizing defense enough last season after being one of the league’s best under Ime Udoka. Through 10 games this year, they are fourth in points allowed, second in opponent’s field goal percentage and 10th in opponent’s 3-point shooting percentage.
They are learning to win in different ways, not just by bombarding 3s or getting heroic efforts from Tatum or Jaylen Brown. They are defending, matching their opponent’s intensity and physicality (eventually Monday), and it was good enough to coast to a satisfying win.
“I think that’s going to be our test, being able to match teams’ physicality,” Brown said. “I think tonight was a great opportunity to do so and we did. Games like this are fun, toughing it out, using our physicality and figuring it out.”