NEW YORK — It wasn’t that Brad Stevens was admonishing his team — as he did following Monday’s disheartening effort — after the Celtics fell behind by 8 points in the first 4:39 Wednesday night. The point of his abrupt timeout was to provide encouragement. Despite six missed shots and two turnovers in their first nine possessions, Stevens was impressed with the approach.
And eventually, the Celtics turned their renewed effort into an impressive defensive performance. After a sluggish first quarter, the offense began converting shots and the bench sparked a second-half run that allowed Boston to coast to an 89-81 win over the Brooklyn Nets at the Barclays Center.
The Celtics took a 14-point lead with 6:03 left and managed to avoid their previous pitfalls with holding leads, getting 21 points from Avery Bradley, 18 from Tyler Zeller, and a series of hustle plays that were not present during Monday’s 104-95 loss to the Hornets that caused Stevens to question his own coaching.
Perhaps the signature play occurred late in the third quarter with the Celtics leading, 67-60. Joe Johnson’s bounce pass skidded past Mason Plumlee and scooted into the backcourt. Brook Lopez, who was near the top of the key and closest to the ball, pulled up with apathy while Jae Crowder raced past him for the rolling ball.
Crowder was eventually pushed over by Darius Morris near the Celtics’ basket as his teammates on the bench waved their towels in support and excitement.
“We had effort going for us,” Crowder said. “Once we have that going for us, our shots don’t have to fall because our players are going to be made with hard play; we don’t have to rely on making shots. That is the one thing that we have been lacking of late, but we had it and it showed. We just came out with a little more effort than they did and it showed late.”
The Celtics weren’t overwhelming offensively. They shot 39.8 percent and got a combined 8-for-27 shooting effort from starters Jeff Green, Jared Sullinger, and Evan Turner. Even the bench was a combined 13 for 35, but the defensive effort was consistent.
During the Dec. 26 Nets victory at TD Garden, Jarrett Jack scored a season-high 27 points in 34 minutes, hypnotizing the Celtics with his pick-and-roll mastery. On Wednesday, he managed 15 points, 4 assists, and 4 turnovers in 39 minutes. The Nets looked like the more tired and uninterested team and the Celtics continued defensive execution in the second half turned the hosts more indifferent, evidenced by Lopez’s late third-quarter meltdown.
“They were quicker,” Nets coach Lionel Hollins said. “They were forcing us to make some quick decisions and we didn’t have that type of quickness to do that with them because we forced them into turnovers when we played them before. It was just one of those nights.”
Stevens expressed relief after watching his trimmed-down rotation produce. Instead of throwing 13 players into the fray, as he did Monday, Stevens reduced it to 10, and the players responded with more playing time.
Stevens wouldn’t promise the rotations would stay the same, but he does like the more limited number and felt uncomfortable about keeping Brandan Wright on the bench. But he was pleased with the results.
“We just kind of grinded it out and some of the effort baskets went our way,” Stevens said. “Jae Crowder’s basket on the loose ball, the quick basket after an inbounds, and those things went our way instead of against us.’’
Bradley scored his 21 points on just 12 shots, including three 3-pointers, and he also scored on backdoor layups, an aspect of his game that has disappeared of late. Bradley scored just 4 points on 2-for-7 shooting against the Hornets, but his defense against Jack as well as his offensive activity were essential.
“The main thing for me and the main thing for everyone is defense,” Bradley said. “Being able to get consistent stops and that’s what we were able to do tonight. Everyone came with 100 percent effort on the defensive end. That’s why we won the game.”
After cutting the deficit to 25-19 after the first quarter, the Celtics again fell behind by double digits (31-19) before a pair of 3-pointers from rookie Marcus Smart sparked a rally that led to a 40-39 lead at the half.
The combination of Bradley’s shooting, Zeller’s layups, and a layup from Kelly Olynyk gave the Celtics a 63-55 lead at the 3:20 mark of the third quarter.
The confidence was brimming, and then the Crowder-Lopez play cemented their momentum.
“You could see everyone playing hard, trying to leave everything out there on the floor,” Bradley said. “That’s what kind of team we have to be. I know you guys have been hearing that all year and we’ve been inconsistent but it has to start from the first unit. The 50-50 [loose] balls, we have to get those because we’re not a very talented team. We have to do all the little things.”