NEW ORLEANS — As has been their pattern this season, the Celtics didn’t make their Monday evening in The Big Easy very easy, despite playing one of their better games of the season.
They defended well. They hit key shots. They were stellar from the 3-point line and they jumped out to a big lead. Still, the Pelicans pounded the paint and lived at the free throw line to slice a 20-point deficit to 7.
But the Celtics carried a different vigor and swagger than they have during their doldrums. They maintained their poise and responded with big shots. Kyrie Irving, who had a team-high 26 points, capped a solid offensive night with a 3-pointer and Jayson Tatum (20 points) sealed a decisive 10-2 run with a hammer dunk for a rewarding 124-107 win at Smoothie King Center.
The Celtics ended their three-game road trip with a nearly wire-to-wire victory, using 19 3-pointers and a tenacious defense that caused 22 turnovers. The Pelicans used the free throw line to mount a final rally, but their defense was porous and the Celtics took full advantage.
There was a sense of relief in the Celtics’ locker room. For the first time since that ballyhooed Nov. 16 overtime victory against Toronto, the Celtics were able to consistently make shots. And that enabled them to stave off the Pelicans.
“Our confidence stayed high,” said forward Marcus Morris. “You set the tone with a team, you kind of dictate the flow of the game and we kept going back to what was working, just free-flowing basketball and guys did well and we did what we were supposed to do. The better team does.”
Celtics coach Brad Stevens replaced the injured Jaylen Brown (back) with Marcus Smart in the starting lineup, and several players pointed to his presence as the key, defensively. The Celtics forced eight first-period turnovers, including five by Pelicans point guard Jrue Holiday, who was pressured constantly by Smart.
It resulted in a 13-point lead after the period and the Pelicans never got closer than 6 the rest of the way.
“That’s how we’re used to playing; that’s the team we know,” said Smart, who has been highly critical of his struggling team of late. “That’s the group of guys and the way we played in the past. That’s the type of game we have to get back to where [opposing teams] start feeling us from the start. We didn’t let them get in a rhythm.”
The Celtics’ primary concern was containing MVP candidate Anthony Davis, who returned after missing one game with a sore hip. He was kept in check until the fourth quarter, where he scored 14 of his 27 points and single-handedly brought the Pelicans back to make it interesting.
But after he scored 45 points with 16 rebounds in a January win at TD Garden, Davis needed 19 shots to get his 27 points. The Celtics walked away happy with their defensive performance.
“What made us very successful [Monday] and other nights when we play at a very high level is the defensive end,” Irving said. “We’re not top three on defense for no reason. Whenever guys feel comfortable against us, they play pretty well and it’s hard to calm a guy down once they get a good pace going.”
The lone Pelican who gave the Celtics issues was swingman Nikola Mirotic, who scored 19 points in the second quarter to draw New Orleans to within 57-48. But the Celtics made adjustments and Mirotic only scored 6 points on 1-for-5 shooting after halftime.
During the recent skid, opposing players such as Trey Burke, Jamal Murray, Donovan Mitchell, and J.J. Barea have scorched the Celtics in the second half.
“Even when they made runs, we answered it time and again,” Stevens said. “Whenever we’ve stayed true to ourselves, we’ve been a pretty good group. It’s when we get a little haphazard that we’re not.
“We’ve played now a game where I thought we looked a step slow against Dallas [on Saturday] for whatever reason and two games where our offense has looked better than it’s ever looked all season. So we’ll see if we can get better.”
Four of the five starters scored at least 19 points, and the one who didn’t (Smart) scored 8 with 5 assists, 2 rebounds, 1 steal and 1 blocked shot.
The Celtics came away from their loss to the Mavericks salty and embarrassed after they melted midway through the fourth quarter. They realized they are a much better and more efficient team when they play with more energy from the beginning.
As an example, they were able to get Al Horford the ball early (12 first-quarter points) and were more aggressive on defense than usual. That resulted in a dominant first quarter where they forced more turnovers (8) than yielded Pelicans field goals (6).
The Celtics led by as many as 20 in the second period (46-26) but Mirotic scored 17 points in the final 7:54 of the period, including a 3-pointer with 26.6 seconds left to slice the deficit to 57-48. Boston countered with a 23-12 run to begin the third to open another 20-point lead, and spent the final 17 minutes matching Pelican runs.
“Like I said a week ago, I think we’re due for a few [big offensive games],” Stevens said. “Hopefully this can open the flood gates and we can build on it.”