When the NBA schedule was released last summer, Celtics coach Brad Stevens could not help but recoil a bit when he glanced at the first few months. There were five separate road trips involving Western Conference teams, and there was not much time at home until January.
Spending most of this month in Boston is usually not that appealing, because, well, winter exists. But for the Celtics, the 11 January home games would provide a needed respite.
On Wednesday, the Celtics closed out their most comforting month of the season by soaring to a 126-94 win over the Hornets. With the victory, Boston finished 10-1 at home in January, the lone blemish being last Saturday’s near miss against the Warriors.
“There was an opportunity to play a little more at home, sleep in your own bed, which is obviously always a good thing, so it’s good,” Stevens said. “Now we need to use whatever we’ve gained from it to go into February and play as well as we can.”
That will be an important challenge, because while the Celtics have been excellent at home, they have lost 13 of 24 on the road, and it will be difficult to climb in the standings if that continues.
There was a time in the third quarter Wednesday when a tense finish appeared likely. All-Star starter Kemba Walker hit a 3-pointer to pull the Hornets within 4 points, and with Boston’s All-Star starter Kyrie Irving on the bench with a strained hip, anything seemed possible for Charlotte.
But the Celtics have found ways to thrive without Irving at home, so that is what they did, pummeling the Hornets with a massive 42-11 run that left Charlotte dazed.
“They just jumped on us,” Walker said.
Stevens was most encouraged because the run was so balanced.
“All of a sudden it just kind of snowballed,” he said. “It feels good to be on a run like this with different guys involved throughout. Everybody that went in off the bench added to it without missing a beat, so that’s a good thing.”
Jaylen Brown led another balanced scoring attack with 24 points and also pulled down 10 rebounds. He appears to have moved on from his early struggles and is now thriving in his bench role. He did not reach the 20-point mark in any of the Celtics’ first 19 games, but has now done it in 10 of the last 27.
“Jaylen I thought not only got going on the offensive end with good, solid action and play off of actions,” Stevens said, “but then also played with great effort to get to a couple loose balls that ended up landing in his hands and he laid it in in the first half. That’s usually a good sign you’re really engaged.”
Terry Rozier, who has struggled to readjust to his role coming off the bench in place of Irving, continues to thrive when he starts for him, tallying 17 points, 10 assists, and 5 rebounds. Stevens said he sensed a surge like this was coming from Rozier based on his play recently. Rozier acknowledged that the vibe is simply different when Irving is not on the court. The others, he said, cannot afford to star gaze.
“When we play with [Irving], it’s more like a show,” Rozier said. “We sit back and watch — watch him go crazy. And without him, obviously we don’t know who the scoring’s really going to come from, so somebody’s got to step up. And we just try to find our way. But with or without him we’re still trying to do good things.”
It is worth pointing out that Irving has mostly been absent against lesser competition. But the results are encouraging for the Celtics nonetheless.
Boston shot 55.6 percent from the field overall and outrebounded the Hornets, 53-31, its widest margin of the season. After shooting 55 percent in the first half, Charlotte made just 31 percent of its attempts after the break.
Jayson Tatum (20 points) had a hot start for the Celtics, making 6 of 8 shots as Boston took a 35-28 lead to the second quarter. When Tatum sat, Brown shined by attacking the basket and lurking for easy putbacks, too. But the crowd will most remember his steal that was capped with a double-pump reverse dunk, part of a flurry that gave Boston a 54-43 lead.
The Celtics led by 4 points with seven minutes left in the third quarter, but the gap did not stay that small for long. A 3-pointer by Marcus Morris ignited a 25-6 run to close the quarter, and Boston had plenty of sizzle in the rush. There was Rozier tossing a lob to Tatum for a one-handed alley-oop. There was Gordon Hayward sliding a pass to Brown for another powerful dunk. The Hornets, meanwhile, were held scoreless for more than four minutes, and they could never recover.
“We need to be as consistent as possible, so we need to show great progress,” Stevens said. “So I’m encouraged but I’m hesitant to be overjoyed until we keep doing it and doing it and doing it.”
More photos from Wednesday’s win: