It appears the Celtics are done trying to meticulously assimilate into this new season. They had been rather casual about their adjustment before Friday.
A night after beating the Milwaukee Bucks soundly, the Celtics looked rather apathetic Wednesday against the Indiana Pacers, as if their progress would automatically ignite. It didn’t. The Celtics realized after a day off that they have to actually play with passion and hustle to secure victories.
On Friday against the Atlanta Hawks, the Celtics played like a team embarrassed about their previous listless performance.
They challenged every shot. They relentlessly hustled for rebounds and they found out how much passion can compensate for lack of execution. They shot 40.8 percent from the field and missed 22 3-pointers and countless layups, but because they were so vigorous around the basket, it didn’t matter as much.
They led nearly the entire second half and ended the game on a 10-0 run, posting a 106-93 victory over a Hawks team that had won its previous four road games and made up a 34-point second-half deficit Tuesday in Minnesota before losing. The Hawks entered Friday every part of the cohesive team the Celtics desired to be.
Yet, the Celtics showed an emphasis on being more selfless, picking your moments and sharing the ball, something that had not been seen in recent games.
“We were starting to share the ball a lot more, we’re seeing what works for us,” said forward Amir Johnson, who had 19 points. “We watched a lot of film. Once we move the ball side-to-side, our offense is unbelievable, and [when] we add defense to that, we’re pretty much unstoppable.”
It’s going to take several more games for the Celtics to find comfort in their roles, understand how to rely on the players most effective that night. On Friday it was Isaiah Thomas and Johnson, who looked as comfortable offensively as he has all season.
Thomas scored 17 of his 23 points in the second half and hit more than one 3-pointer in a game for just the second time this season. The cold-shooting Celtics just needed to keep faith but also play a bit more animated defensively and with rebounding.
They battered the Hawks, 50-35, on the boards and nabbed 17 offensive rebounds. The Celtics had so many offensive rebounding chances because they couldn’t convert around the basket. On three separate occasions in the first half the Celtics missed three putbacks.
Such futility would have caused great frustration in previous games, but the Celtics maintained their fortitude until shots began falling.
“We met as a staff at halftime . . . and I just felt like we were getting great shots, and I thought the best way that we could talk about it was what we talked about earlier in the day,” Stevens said. “We weren’t giving up transition baskets and we were doing a good job on the glass. Like, we were really locked in; we just weren’t making anything. And then we went on that stretch where we made some shots, and I didn’t think they were any better than the shots we missed in the first half. They just went in.”
The issue during the first two weeks of the season has been an abysmal offense and the Celtics becoming discouraged and allowing it to affect their defense and rebounding. The Celtics were running back on defense with heads down, not fighting for loose balls or competing under the basket. In one fourth-quarter sequence Friday, Jared Sullinger was obviously beaten on a loose ball, but outmuscled and basically flattened Mike Muscala against the basket stanchion to force a jump ball.
Muscala, face turned red, looked as if he had been sacked by Vince Wilfork. The Celtics, led by Sullinger, exerted their physicality against a team that is more finesse. The strength of the Celtics is their depth. They have their share of bruisers, and Sullinger, Jae Crowder, and Johnson need to impose their will, even when the offense is struggling.
The offense responded in the waning minutes when the Hawks reduced a 15-point deficit to 3, but by then the Celtics already had regained their confidence, evidenced by the erratic Crowder draining consecutive shots to seal the game.
It was a satisfying victory, but not borne of luck or good fortune. The Celtics won Friday with grit, overcoming their offensive insecurities and playing a complete game.