WASHINGTON — This season was supposed to be different. The Celtics had been working out informally since Sept. 4, when the newcomers and veterans showed up in Waltham for intense, full-court practices.
Yet, their regular-season start is eerily similar to last season. Then those bungling, hobbled Celtics lost their first three games and resorted to ekeing out victories against downtrodden teams to gain confidence.
Fast forward to Saturday night at Verizon Center, when the Celtics took an early 16-point lead, blew it, and then staved off the shorthanded Wizards with defense in an 89-86 win. The contest was the Wizards’ home opener, but the sold-out crowd was filled with Celtics faithful.
Unable to provide the knockout blow to a Washington team missing two starters, the Celtics were caught and passed after a Kevin Seraphin jumper with 2:56 left.
Paul Pierce, in yet another dramatic and clutch moment, drained a 3-pointer 21 seconds later to give the Celtics the lead for good. Pierce led all scorers with 27 points.
The remaining 2:35 was spent with the Celtics stopping the Wizards with staunch defense and then blowing several chances to extend the lead.
Finally, the Celtics forced a rushed 3-point attempt by Martell Webster with 1.9 seconds left, Jason Terry sank two free throws with 1.2 seconds left, and the Celtics escaped with a rewarding victory.
“We got the win and that’s the most important part,” Pierce said. “Obviously we’ve got to get better.”
The Celtics won with defense and some good fortune. Washington shot 35 percent in the fourth quarter, but played the period with a hobbled Jordan Crawford, who sliced the Celtics for a team-high 21 points in 25 minutes.
But on a drive to the basket with 9:51 left and the Celtics clinging to a 73-69 lead, Crawford was clipped by Jeff Green and landed awkwardly on his left ankle. Crawford sank one of two free throws and did not score again.
Boston stymied all but two Wizards and that nearly cost them the victory.
Crawford and Seraphin came off the bench and combined for 16-for-23 shooting for 40 points. The rest of the Wizards were 18 of 55 for 46 points.
“In the third and middle of the fourth quarter, our transition defense reverted back to where we’ve been all year, but overall, especially in the beginning of the game, I thought we came out with great defensive energy,” Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. “We are still not used to [playing consistent defense] and as the game went on, we got tired.”
Tired is good for the Celtics’ development if they expect to become a defense-first team. They held the Wizards to 3-for-17 shooting to begin the game and led after one, 26-12. The next three quarters were spent staving off rallies and missing easy shots. The Celtics shot 35.6 percent in the second half, 5 of 19 from Terry, Kevin Garnett, and Rajon Rondo.
Rondo, however, saved his best for down the stretch, shot-putting in a shot that was deflected by Seraphin 0.1 seconds before the 24-second clock expired for an 84-79 lead.
“We didn’t escape, we had control of the game the entire game,’’ said Rondo, who finished with 12 points and 12 assists. “And when we had to get a stop, we did.
“Just trying to work on my spike a little bit. I had palmed the ball I think, shot put, floater, the ball went in the hole at the right time. I needed that. We needed that as a team.”
The Celtics again dominated the Washington starters, going on a 16-10 run through the first 6:16 of the third to extend the lead to 65-52. That’s when the combination of Crawford and Seraphin sparked another run with their impeccable shooting to reduce the Wizards’ deficit to 71-67 at the end of the third.
After three quarters, Crawford and Seraphin were a combined 15 for 20 for 35 points, while their teammates were 12 of 36 for 32 points. Crawford used his shifty moves to create space, while Seraphin shot over Garnett or used his girth to gain post position.
Although Boston played solid defense otherwise, Rivers’s frustration after every Crawford basket was apparent.
Randy Wittman had little choice but to go with his bench with his starters getting pounded by the Celtics’ counterparts. Crawford and Seraphin sparked a 17-8 run to begin the second quarter that shrunk the Celtics’ lead to 34-29.
Seraphin’s athleticism gave Garnett problems while Courtney Lee closely defended Crawford, who still responded with a series of difficult runners.
Trevor Booker (11 points, 10 rebounds) countered with a spinning layup to slice the lead to 49-42 at the break. Washington shot a stunning 66.7 (14 of 21) in the second quarter and scored 30 points, the sixth 30-point quarter the Celtics have yielded this season.
Rivers mentioned his club lacked a sense of urgency in the past two games and it appeared his players listened. The Celtics made a definitive statement against the undermanned Wizards as Pierce opened the night with a 3-pointer 17 seconds into the game.
The Celtics continued with their offensive flurry, scoring 17 of the game’s first 19 points. Garnett (15 points) was aggressive in the paint. Jared Sullinger was active around the basket and Rondo was distributing the ball with precision.
The Celtics took a 17-2 lead and didn’t allow a true field goal until a Booker layup at the 3:53 mark; Washington scored its first basket on a Garnett goaltending.Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.