NEW ORLEANS — The Celtics have been extremely guilty of following impressive performances with clunkers, unable to follow through after a strong outing, and they entered Monday's matchup with the New Orleans Pelicans having just pushed the San Antonio Spurs to the brink two nights earlier.
They seemed to have learned from their past misdoings, responding with a wire-to-wire outing to complete a five-game road swing in positive fashion. An arduous trip that took the Celtics to Florida, Mexico, Texas, and finally Louisiana ended with players smiling, munching on Cajun food as they prepared to go home for the first time in 10 days.
Jared Sullinger tied his career high with 20 rebounds and Kelly Olynyk continued his strong play with 21 points in 27 minutes as Boston contained All-Star Anthony Davis and cruised to a 111-93 win at Smoothie King Center.
The win was surprisingly convincing, but the Celtics played desperately as if they wanted to end their flirtation with mediocrity. Since a 1-3 start, the Celtics have gone 11-6 and are trying to put together more complete performances, as they did Monday.
Boston led for the final 27:09 and spent the second half staving off New Orleans with ball movement and 3-point shooting.
"We talked about it and, as you looked at our schedule in November, each of these you can grab was going to be really important," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "I thought our guys played really hard, really focused, stayed the course when things didn't go quite as well in the second quarter. Really played well for 38, 40 minutes."
New Orleans got within 84-73 with 10:10 left, but the Celtics responded with a 13-4 run that included an acrobatic layup by James Young, who scored 4 points in a season-high 20 minutes. The Celtics shot 49.4 percent and drained 12 3-pointers, capitalizing on New Orleans's porous defense that allowed an average of 109 points per game.
Davis scored just 16 points on 8-for-21 shooting and was never a major factor, missing 11 of 15 shots in one stretch. What's more, the other four New Orleans starters combined for just 11 points, including scoreless outings from Tyreke Evans and Eric Gordon.
"I just think being physical and removing him from the paint," Sullinger said of the key to defending Davis. "We made everything physical. We made everything difficult and we tried to compact the paint."
Davis picked up two early fouls and scored just 2 points the remainder of the first half. The Celtics started the third quarter with a 20-9 run to extend their lead to 73-53, turning Davis into an afterthought. He lauded the Celtics' intensity.
"We didn't play hard and compete," Davis said. "The scouting report was that [the Celtics were] going to play hard and be physical, and we weren't matching their physicality or their intensity. We did OK in the first quarter and then after that we stopped playing."
Isaiah Thomas scored 19 of his 22 points in the first half while Jae Crowder added 17 as the Celtics headed home to face the Bulls on Wednesday.
The second half of the third quarter was a grind for the Celtics, as Stevens removed Thomas and used a smallish lineup as the Pelicans used mammoth Alexis Ajinca to make a 9-0 run that made it interesting entering the fourth.
Olynyk, limited to 12 minutes because of foul trouble Saturday, helped seal the win with 10 points in the fourth quarter. The Celtics used their depth to wear down the sputtering Pelicans, who had beaten Cleveland on Friday and had won four of their past eight games since a 1-11 start.
"We wanted to come out [of this road trip] with a winning record," Sullinger said. "The East is a stranglehold up top and we knew we need to win as many as possible in this five-game road trip."
The Celtics were very wary of Davis in the first half, and he opted to launch jumpers instead of attacking the basket. He showed his ever-improving perimeter game by draining three midrange shots as the Pelicans raced to an early lead.
Stevens wanted to play inside-out, pounding the paint to allow open opportunities on the perimeter, and it worked. Not only did the Celtics begin scoring inside, they got Davis in early foul trouble. He picked up his second at the 6:25 mark of the first period and sat out nearly nine minutes.
What the Celtics didn't have an answer for his the versatility of reserve swingman Ryan Anderson, who, at 6 feet 11 inches, is one of the league's better long-range shooters, as well as a post-up option. He scored 14 of his 18 points in the first half, but the Celtics blitzed him defensively after halftime.
"We just tried to mix it up as much as possible," Stevens said. "We were obviously switching [on] Anderson and the one thing that does is it keeps you out of rotations when [Anderson] sets the pick and roll so that you can stay home on Davis. The guys did a really good job of it, all the way down the bench."