It was a complete Celtics victory Wednesday, save another horrid defensive third quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
They won a game they were expected to win and should have by double digits. The 115-102 victory was the Celtics’ first of an 11-game home slate in January. It will be the opportunity for the team to make a serious run in the Eastern Conference.
In January — including road games — the Celtics should be huge favorites in all but three: Indiana, Toronto and Golden State, all at TD Garden.
There are two games with Brooklyn, two with Miami, home games against Dallas, Memphis, Cleveland, and Charlotte, road games against Atlanta and Orlando.
If the Celtics are going to snatch the East away from the Toronto Raptors or Indiana Pacers, it has to be now. Wednesday’s win wasn’t perfect. The Celtics again got pounded in the third quarter — surrendering 39 points and 70 percent shooting — but they led the entire way without Kyrie Irving and with Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris missing game time because of injuries.
The brightest spot was the performance of Gordon Hayward, who poured in a season-high 35 points in 32 minutes on 14-for-18 shooting. It’s coming slowly for Hayward but it’s coming. And it’s almost a must that he takes some of the scoring load off Irving and Jayson Tatum.
After scoring in double figures in 30 of his first 33 games this season, Tatum has scored 10 points or more just once in the past four games, averaging 7.7 points on 14-for-38 shooting (36.8 percent). He has made just two of his past 17 attempts from the 3-point line.
That’s really nothing to be concerned about. Slumps are part of the game but the Celtics are going to need Hayward and Jaylen Brown to compensate, especially if Morris (stiff neck) misses any significant time. This is the time when the Celtics’ depth has to become a major asset.
Most members of the roster, save Morris and Irving, have endured various skids, which is one of the reasons for their less-than-stellar 22-15 record. But as the season reaches its midway point — Game 41 is Jan. 10 at Miami — the Celtics need to start beating teams with their versatility and stop blaming injuries.
The loss of Aron Baynes has been painful. Karl-Anthony Towns joined Joel Embiid and LaMarcus Aldridge as big men who dominated in the middle when Al Horford was on the bench resting. Daniel Theis struggled with Towns and Guerschon Yabusele, a “center” in the body of a burly small forward, tried defensively but just doesn’t have the size.
With Baynes out at least a few more weeks, the Celtics are just going to have to figure out on the fly how to defend better. No one is going to feel sorry because one of their best defensive centers is injured. The elite teams make adjustments, call on their depth, and keep moving.
Hayward was brilliant again against the Timberwolves. For those looking for any positive signs of improvement, Hayward is averaging 11.7 points in his past 10 games, and that includes going scoreless New Year’s Eve in San Antonio.
The most encouraging development from Wednesday is that Hayward came out aggressive. In San Antonio, he missed all six of his shots, five of those 3-pointers, and all of those were clean looks. Until he can prove he can score consistently and knock down 3-pointers — he was in a 6-for-32 slump before Wednesday — teams are going to allow him to shoot.
Hayward has to take advantage of that soft defense until defenders extend to the 3-point line to defend him. That’s when he can turn into more of a creator and facilitator. And that’s one of the main reasons the Celtics signed him — for his ability to play point forward and have the offense run through him.
It’s about time the Celtics see the best of Hayward, Brown, and Terry Rozier in the second half of the season. Rozier started in place of Irving and scored 16 points with 5 assists and 5 steals. Brown followed up his 30-point performance Monday with 10 points and five rebounds, and he was a plus-13 in his 29 minutes.
Irving’s status is uncertain for Friday against the Dallas Mavericks after he suffered a scratched cornea in a collision with San Antonio’s Marco Bellinelli. The Celtics need him back as soon as possible, but they have enough depth to survive without him. For the first time since the Dec. 23 game against the Charlotte Hornets, the Celtics were able to win with little suspense in the late going.
This upcoming stretch of home games, mostly against beatable teams, is the most important portion of the season. Teams are going to be gasping for rest until the mid-February All-Star break, but it will be up to the Celtics not to focus on that one-week respite but all they can accomplish before then, and starting now.