ORLANDO — Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas flew home to Boston on Tuesday to receive treatment on his strained groin, and suddenly the Celtics had to find a way to defeat the streaking Magic without their most dynamic scorer and playmaker.
So they did it together. They defended together and rebounded together and passed together, and when their emphatic 117-87 win was over, ending this road trip on a high note, they smiled together, too.
“We were just having fun,” guard Avery Bradley said. “We were having fun, smiling, joking. That’s how the game is supposed to be, just fun and enjoying playing with each other and playing for one another.”
Afterward, the encomium flowed. Celtics coach Brad Stevens praised Al Horford’s passing, as the Celtics looked to play through the big man in the post with Thomas out. Horford praised his teammates for moving so urgently as they cut to the basket, simplifying his task.
Several players said Bradley’s defense keyed Boston’s second-half surge, and Bradley deflected those accolades to the others. In the end, a night that started with uncertainty because of Thomas’s absence ended with the Celtics’ most complete and convincing win of this season.
“I feel like we can definitely build from this game,” Horford said.
The Celtics trailed by 1 point after two quarters but used a devastating second half to crush the Magic. After the break the Celtics shot 59.5 percent and held Orlando to 26.7 percent shooting. They also had a 30-18 rebounding edge and, most importantly, a stunning 68-37 advantage on the scoreboard.
“On defense, I thought our second half was as good as we’ve guarded all year,” Stevens said. “Really focused, really urgent.”
Thomas averages 26 points and 6.2 assists per game, so filling that void figured to be a challenge. But the collective effort was more than enough. All 13 Celtics who played had a rebound and 12 had an assist. The only one who did not, center Jordan Mickey, played just 1 minute, 47 seconds.
Bradley led the Celtics in scoring (23), Jae Crowder led them in rebounding (10), Horford led them in assists (8), and Marcus Smart led them in steals (2).
Meanwhile, Boston received an essential lift from its bench. Point guard Terry Rozier tallied a career-high 16 points and five rebounds and said afterward that he’d had so much room to work that he felt like he was in college again. Rookie forward Jaylen Brown added 13 points, including one soaring, one-handed dunk in the face of Orlando 7-footer Nikola Vucevic that caused several Celtics to briefly run onto the court in celebration while the ball was still live.
Jaylen Brown’s monster dunk
“When me and Terry get in, we talk to each other and say we’ve just got to run,” Brown said. “That’s our focus. We’re young. We just try to get up and down the floor.”
Despite this one glowing performance, the Celtics made it clear after the win that they need a healthy Thomas back to truly be at their best. The point guard’s status for Friday’s game against the division-leading Raptors is uncertain, and late Wednesday night Stevens canceled Thursday’s practice.
“He’s an All-Star,” Rozier said of Thomas. “However you want to put it, he won so many games for us last year and this year.”
Marcus Smart started in place of Thomas, and the mercurial shooter started by hitting his first two jump shots, one of which was a 3-pointer. But that is essentially where the Celtics’ long-range shooting cooled in the first half, as they missed their next 13 long-range attempts.
Normally, that would be disastrous, particularly without someone like Thomas, the only player consistently able to get to the free-throw line. But the Celtics lingered, even as Orlando made 5 of its first 6 3-pointers.
Boston ranks 27th in the NBA in rebounding percentage, yet stayed close by attacking the glass and working the interior. A pull-up jumper by Bradley capped an 8-0 run that gave Boston its largest lead of the first half, 44-40. Then Orlando’s D.J. Augustin hit three 3-pointers in the final 1:47 of the second period to give his team a 50-49 lead at the break.
“Those can be backbreakers in a game,” Stevens said.
In this game, however, they were not. In the third quarter the Celtics began to wear down the Magic, who wrapped up a five-game road trip by playing in Washington the previous night, when the Celtics were already in Orlando.
Boston made seven of its first eight shots, and a jumper from the right arc by Crowder capped an 18-4 burst that gave his team a 67-54 lead. The Celtics were 14 for 19 from the field in the third quarter with 11 assists. The Magic never threatened after that.
“I just think you could see that we had a presence about us,” Stevens said. “We were locked in with our coverages. We were trying to make it as difficult as possible on them to get good, clean looks.”