The Knicks knew what was coming, and the Celtics didn’t disappoint
On Nov. 21, the lowly Knicks came to TD Garden and handed the Celtics a demoralizing loss that was probably the nadir of their messy start. That game irked point guard Kyrie Irving, and it was not the only one that did.
“You know, I was thinking about it since we lost to them, a few teams that we owe,” Irving said Thursday night. “I still remember certain players on other teams asking us what was going on with us when we were 10-10.”
So perhaps this is the start of a payback tour for Irving and the Celtics. Boston on Thursday avenged that humbling loss, surging to a 128-100 victory, its season-high fourth in a row.
The Celtics, whose offense sputtered quite often before this streak, have now topped the 115-point mark in four consecutive games. It is the first time they’ve done that since December 1990.
“Now it’s not so much about who’s playing, who has more talent,” Irving said. “Now, it’s like, ‘OK, who is going to give that effort every single time down, and who’s going to demand it from one another and hold each other accountable?’ And you go from there, and you start building some great championship patterns.”
Few would have predicted that just over one quarter through the season, Boston’s lineups and rotations would be extensively reconstructed. But it appears, at least for now, that coach Brad Stevens has found a formula that works.
Jaylen Brown returned Thursday after missing three games with a bruised lower back, but he came off the bench along with another former starter, Gordon Hayward.
Brown, who was shooting just 39.8 percent from the field and 25.3 percent from beyond the 3-point line, scored a season-high 21 points on 7-of-10 shooting. He has vowed to get back to the aggressive style that defines him, and Thursday he took a season-high nine free throws and just two 3-pointers.
“I thought he was really good,” Stevens said. “I thought he played with great pace and purpose and made really good decisions. I didn’t think anything was forced . . . He just played the right way.”
Irving added 22 points and 8 assists for the Celtics, who made 53.3 percent of their shots overall. Irving left the game in the final minutes after appearing to tweak his right shoulder on a pass to Marcus Morris. The shoulder was wrapped in ice as Irving sat on the bench. Irving did not seem especially concerned, but there wasn’t much clarity, either.
“It just caught me weird on my shoulder,” he said. “Probably my AC joint or something like that. I’m not diagnosing myself. I’m pretty sure I saw the doctors afterward and it’s probably just the AC joint or something going on there, but I’ll be all right.”
Late in the first quarter, center Aron Baynes sprained his left ankle and tumbled to the floor in pain. He limped to the locker room and was ruled out for the rest of the game soon after. Stevens did not have an update on Baynes’s condition, saying only that the burly big man hopes to play Saturday.
“But I don’t know if our doctors agree with that,” Stevens said, “so we’ll see.”
Tim Hardaway Jr. had 22 points for the Knicks. New York was without injured guard Trey Burke, who blitzed the Celtics with a 29-point, 11-assist performance in his team’s win here last month.
Before Thursday’s game, Knicks coach David Fizdale seemed to sense that the Celtics might still have a sour taste from their loss to his team last month.
“Brace for impact,” he said, “because they have pride and they want to show us that they’re the better team.”
Boston went 3-0 with Marcus Smart in the starting lineup, and Stevens appeared wary of switching something that was working, so he kept the group intact despite Brown’s return. Brown entered the game with Hayward with 4:40 left in the first quarter and had an immediate impact, attacking the basket for a 3-point play before getting fouled on a similar play moments later.
“I just think that’s when he’s at his best when he’s able to just read the floor, attack the right way,” Al Horford said of Brown. “There’s not a lot of guys that can stay in front of him.”
Brown’s surge was part of a blistering start for the Celtics, who finished the first quarter with a 38-30 lead after going 14 for 23 from the field and 7 for 7 from the foul line, with nine assists and no turnovers.
Despite their smooth, composed play, the Celtics were unable to really pull away in the first half. New York pulled within 56-51 on a Mario Hezonja 3-point play with 3:37 left.
But Horford, who was scoreless for the first 21 minutes of the half, took over in the final three, as he made five consecutive shots and scored 11 points, helping Boston take a 69-58 lead to the break.
With 3:49 left in the third quarter, Hardaway hit a three to pull his team within 89-82, but the Celtics responded with a quick 8-0 burst to stretch the lead to 15, and the lead was never really in danger again.
“The way you bring the best out of your opponent is you play at a certain level where they either match it or they exceed it,” Irving said, “or they don’t do anything at all, and they just give up.”