MINNEAPOLIS — Although it may have taken nearly two years for Marcus Smart to figure out and become comfortable with his role on the Celtics — as a multi-purpose guard/forward agitator off the bench — the third-year guard is completely comfortable dressing down his teammates when necessary.
And after the third quarter Monday night against the young Minnesota Timberwolves, it was necessary. The Celtics trailed by 13 points, were getting pounded on the boards, and “punked” in the paint, according to guard Isaiah Thomas.
So Smart chided his team after the third period, challenging their desire and toughness.
The result was a stirring fourth-quarter Celtics’ run, one in which they turned the Timberwolves timid offensively while Boston pushed the pace and scored at will. A 19-0 run led to a satisfying 99-93 win at the Target Center, at by the end, the 13,167 in attendance were booing the home team after another disheartening loss.
The Celtics turned a 15-point deficit into an 85-81 lead and Minnesota didn’t score until Karl-Anthony Towns completed a 3-point play with 5:18 left in the game. The run was startling and dramatic, considering the Celtics looked defeated and frustrated after the third period.
Minnesota had scored 50 of its 81 points in the paint. Towns already had 21 points and 14 rebounds. Gorgui Dieng couldn’t be stopped on the pick-and-roll and had scored 18, and the Timberwolves had reached the free throw line 24 times to Boston’s 4.
“Everybody was [ticked] off how we were playing the whole game,” Smart said. “We were getting as we liked it call it, ‘punked.’ We saw that and everybody had something to say about it and we had to change it. Everybody agreed that we weren’t playing to the caliber that we usually play.”
The Timberwolves missed 16 of their first 17 shots in the fourth quarter and coach Tom Thibodeau burned his final timeout with 5:31 left, meaning his team had to rely on Boston timeouts for any rest.
Smart hit a 3-pointer and Thomas streaked for a layup for a 90-94 Celtics’ lead, and after Towns followed with his 3-pointer, Avery Bradley dunked and Thomas followed with three consecutive free throws for a 95-87 lead with 31.6 seconds left.
The Celtics’ rally occurred with Thomas on the bench. Backup point guard Terry Rozier scored 8 points in the 19-0 run and also sparked the Celtics’ defense by covering guard Ricky Rubio full court.
“That’s something that we’ve been talking about since preseason, when you get in, we’ve got to either pick up where the first team dropped off or we’ve got to even play harder than them,” Rozier said. “We had a team meeting not too long ago and that’s one of the things that we said. We made a lot of things happen.”
The Celtics outscored the Timberwolves 31-12 in the final quarter,
“Everything had to go right at that time,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Having those guys in [the bench] and them again making those big shots was great for them. The way they fought for rebounds, even though we gave up a few open shots. If Minnesota makes [them], we may not be standing here talking about a win. Certainly we fought for every loose ball in that fourth quarter.
“This is a hard team for us to play against. These guys are big and strong and long and talented. Again, I thought we got a little fortunate with some missed shots.”
Thomas led the Celtics with 29 points on 9-for-20 shooting, including seven free throws in the final 4:59. Al Horford added 20 points with 6 rebounds and 5 assists, including a volleyball swat out to Smart for a 3-pointer that extended the Celtics’ lead to 4.
Horford was a plus-22 in the fourth quarter and plus-19 for the game.
Stevens was right, the Celtics had very little success at the Target Center before Monday, going 0-3 in the Stevens era, two of those double-digit losses.
The issue is the Celtics can’t contain Minnesota’s size and it was a problem again Monday, when Towns scored 6 points in the first 77 seconds, then Dieng grabbed nearly every offensive rebound and scored at will on the pick-and-roll.
The Celtics led, 31-24, with 9:24 left in the second period after a driving Rozier layup. The trouble then ensued. Reserve Nemanja Bjelica, who was averaging 6.3 points per game, scored 7 in a span of 2:34 as the Wolves went on a 28-11 run to end the half.
Boston was content to launch 3-pointers — 38 of their 84 shots were threes — and lacked aggression around the basket because of Minnesota’s shot blockers. The Celtics grabbed just four rebounds in the second period, limited to one shot on the offensive end while the Timberwolves played volleyball on their missed shots.
Dieng couldn’t be stopped around the basket, and put Minnesota ahead, 45-40, on a driving dunk followed by a Towns 3-pointer. The duo ended the half with buckets for a 10-point lead.
Afterward, there was a high level of frustrations in the Timberwolves locker room.
“I’m sick and tired of coming in front of you and having to say the same thing,” Towns said. “Coach is giving us great plans. We’re doing a great job three quarters and we always seem not to play four out of four quarters. We’ve got to fix it. That’s up to us.”