Finally, mercifully, we all collectively found a reason to exhale last night.
Look, the Bulls are the Bulls. They’re one of the Eastern Conference’s worst teams and the Celtics’ 29-point margin of victory last night is more or less what you’d expect from such a match-up. The Celtics are expected to be a great team, and great teams should excel against bad ones. Nobody’s going to remember that win in the grand scheme of Boston’s 2018-19 campaign; it’s just what was expected.
Still, some nights, a team just needs a game like this. After their miserable five-game road trip last week, the Celtics really did. Five games against predominantly playoff-bound teams yielded only a single, solitary win which came against the worst competition of the bunch, the Suns, and featured significant lapses in effort and execution. For a team as prominent and as scrutinized as the Celtics always are, such a trip typically only leads to frustration and anxiety. And that’s exactly what developed.
In the early going last night, it looked like those concerns would persist even further. The Bulls won the first quarter, 24-19, despite not even playing particularly well. The Celtics were missing open shots — again — and making unfortunate defensive mistakes — again — and it all felt very familiar to anyone who watched that whole road trip.
And then the second quarter happened.
See, second quarters have been something of a bugaboo for these Celtics. For the season, they’ve been the worst team in the NBA in the second quarter; they’ve scored only 23.8 points per game, and in their last five games, they lost the quarter 28-16 to Portland, 31-26 to Utah, 23-22 to Phoenix, 35-22 to Denver and 27-17 to Indiana.
Tonight, they won the second quarter, 32-11.
The Chicago Bulls Factor™ remains significant throughout this conversation — the Bulls are seriously very bad — but still, this game turned from a potential disaster to a happy blowout in the second quarter. A persistent concern throughout the road trip was the almost ever-present need for a comeback, typically from a double-digit deficit; though the Celtics came back in incredibly dramatic fashion to defeat the Suns, they couldn’t dig themselves out of similar holes against either Utah or Portland. While everybody certainly enjoys an exciting comeback, nobody wants to be in the position to need one. As fans, we’ll all take more wall-to-wall blowouts, thank you very much.
But the Celtics haven’t provided any such wins, and that starts with their performance in the early game — especially in the second quarter. The crux of this issue isn’t anything specific. Theoretically, the second quarter counts just the same as any other, after all.
From a more nebulous standpoint, though, the second quarter shows some importance from a motivational perspective, and it might be particularly crucial to the Celtics’ bigger picture success this season.
The Celtics have generally opened games executing their game plan very well. They’ve found the looks they want to find, but they’ve been one of the worst teams in the league in terms of making the open shots those plans create. Once those shots have missed early on, the team has seemingly gone flat; even if the first quarter was competitive, it feels as though everyone on the roster has started gunning for their own looks by the time the second starts, leading to a general collapse on both ends of the court. Both Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have discussed — with remarkable similarity — how the team has seemingly gotten “too cool” in these situations.
Jaylen Brown: "Sometimes, we're out there being a little too cool...sometimes we forget why we started and that process it took to get here. We got to play like we're hungry. We can't play like we are sitting on a mountain top. In that 2nd half, we played like that."— Brian Robb (@BrianTRobb) November 9, 2018
Tatum: “We might be just a little bit too cool when we start. When we come back, we’re in desperation mode, we play like that the whole time, we look pretty good.”— Tom Westerholm (@Tom_NBA) November 12, 2018
Jaylen Brown used the phrase "too cool” in Phoenix as well.
The Celtics have played like men possessed in most of their second halves in this recent span of time. Watching the second halves in question, you can see why the Celtics were held in such high regard this off season — they simply have so much more talent than the teams they’re facing, even during this gamut of Western Conference playoff contenders. They essentially spotted their opponents a handicap by limping into halftime with a notable deficit, and challenged themselves to pull a win out of the hat before the end. Against a bottom-feeder like Phoenix, that’s a manageable expedition — against a playoff-seasoned roster like Portland’s or Utah’s, perhaps not so much.
Last night, against the lowly Bulls, the Celtics looked like a team that didn’t lose sight of what they wanted to accomplish. Yes, they came out flat in the first quarter, and yes, that shouldn’t really happen against a team starting a point guard whose last name Mike Gorman struggles to even pronounce (ar-chee-dee-ACK-uh-no, by the way).
Unlike in recent games, however, the Celtics didn’t falter — they stuck to the game plan and, mercifully, the shots finally started to fall. Arguably their best possession of the night — maybe even of the season! — came on a missed three-pointer from Jaylen Brown, after some outstanding ball movement.
Honestly, the most notable thing about that particular play is that it wasn’t notable in the end. In recent games, that shot rimming out might have fractured the offense to an extent; perhaps instead of driving and making that pass, Tatum would have instead opted for the difficult, pull-up two-point jumper in subsequent possessions. Perhaps it would have sparked a Bulls run, as the Celtics continued to see their effort result in very little and felt a little roster-wide demoralization. As fans, in recent games, we might have held that play up as an example of how the Celtics’ offense has room to grow — how, once those shots start falling, they’ll improve.
None of that happened tonight. The Celtics did not fold, and their lead would only grow in the second half. That particular play is now an afterthought, because — for once — the Celtics asserted themselves early on in a game. For this team to finally find their stride, and realize their significant upside, that is exactly the kind of effort that will need to become the standard going forward.