Celtics coach Brad Stevens draws raves for his ability to adapt and counterattack within a game’s frenetic flow. When the Celtics gather on the bench during stoppages in play, they are always confident their coach will have an answer.
But there are also times when the instructions are not especially intricate. There are times when even professional basketball players just want to hear someone tell them they can do it.
“The biggest thing we say in the huddle,” guard Evan Turner said, “coaches say, ‘Just keep believing.’ ”
That mantra was relevant late in the Celtics’ game against the Knicks on Friday night. Boston trailed by 8 points with less than four minutes left, and there was no panic. The Celtics had overcome double-digit deficits in each of their last three wins, so they had no reason to think this crater would be too daunting.
So they struck. They struck just as suddenly and powerfully as they have so many times during this season that appears increasingly charmed by the day.
By the time Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony heaved a desperation 3-pointer that smacked off the backboard at the buzzer, the Celtics’ comeback was complete. They’d taken a 105-104 victory, their fifth in a row overall and 13th straight at TD Garden, tying a record for the building.
“I do think that if you’re able to win a couple of close games, or able to execute, or able to get stops or whatever the case may be,” Stevens said, “I think that does build a trust and a belief in that you’re going to have a shot. You’re at least going to have a shot.”
The Knicks led, 100-92, with 3:30 left when the Celtics ignited their comeback. A free throw by Jae Crowder was followed by a fast-break layup by Isaiah Thomas. Then Jared Sullinger grabbed a rebound and heaved a full-court pass to Crowder for a dunk, making it 100-97.
“He knows I’m always taking off,” Crowder said of Sullinger. “And if I contest a shot, I’m taking off, and expect him wherever he is to clean up.”
At the other end, Turner tipped a pass by Lance Thomas. As the ball bounced toward the baseline, the Knicks appeared content to watch it go out of bounds. But Turner chased it down and, with his back to the court, whipped an underhand pass to Sullinger, who fired yet another long outlet to Crowder for a layup.
“I was just hoping somebody on my team grabbed it, and when I threw it I just heard cheers,” Turner said. “And I heard even more cheers when I turned around and Crowder laid it up.”
The Celtics trailed, 102-101, when Turner dribbled upcourt and pulled up for a jumper from the left elbow, giving his team a 1-point lead with 36.4 seconds left. After a timeout, Anthony answered by posting up Crowder and drilling a high-arcing fadeaway.
But with 17.7 seconds remaining, Avery Bradley drove to his right and completed a difficult layup, putting the Celtics back in front, 105-104.
During the Celtics’ timeout that preceded that play, Stevens reminded his team of two important facts: The Knicks were out of timeouts, and the Celtics could commit one foul without going into the penalty.
Crowder knew the ball would end up with Anthony, so he patiently waited until 3.3 seconds remained and aggressively went for a steal. The foul was called, Anthony’s rhythm was disturbed, and the Knicks had no timeouts to regroup.
The Celtics quickly dropped into a zone defense, and Anthony caught the inbounds pass about 30 feet from the hoop. With Marcus Smart in his face, Anthony’s long 3-point try never had a chance.
“One thing we just keep talking about is just keep fighting,” Turner said. “Keep fighting, keep giving ourselves an opportunity to believe.”
Thomas finished with 32 points and eight assists to lead the Celtics, and Crowder added 20 points and eight rebounds. Anthony had 30 points and seven rebounds.
The Knicks were effective from the perimeter for much of the night, but they were ultimately doomed by four consecutive missed jump shots while the Celtics attacked for layups and dunks. Overall, the Celtics held a 30-4 edge on fast-break points.
After the Knicks beat the Celtics at Madison Square Garden on Jan. 12, the teams were tied in the Eastern Conference standings with .500 records. Boston had lost four games in a row and there were questions about cohesion; the Knicks appeared to be surging.
But the teams have taken divergent paths since then. The Celtics are jostling for a high playoff seed while the Knicks are floundering in 13th place. In the locker room after Friday’s win, the Celtics had already turned their focus to Saturday, to their road game against LeBron James and the Cavaliers. With a win, the Celtics would take the regular-season series against Cleveland, 2-1.
“We came in here and said we have another tough one tomorrow and we can win that series against those guys,” Crowder said. “We’re looking forward to the matchup.”