The Celtics look like the Celtics again. I don’t care if their last two wins have come against teams that are either a shell of themselves or a shell of what you might call a pro basketball team. They look awake, spirited, and ready to turn around a season. If such a switch-flip must come in the form of blowouts over below-.500 teams, so be it.
Specifically, this blowout comes against the Charlotte Hornets (kind of; I’ll explain in a second), and the final score was 116-86. Now that that’s out of the way, I do have a brief Shakespearian tragedy to tell.
Admittedly, I circle a bunch of games on the calendar every year when the NBA schedules are released. While I had to wait until the season’s second-half schedule was released in late February to highlight the first of three matchups between the Boston Celtics and the Charlotte Hornets, I’ve never uncapped a sharpie faster. I was ready for – buzzword warning – the narratives. The new Hornets guard (literally, in LaMelo Ball) versus the old guard no longer in Charlotte (Kemba Walker); Gordon Hayward’s return to the Garden; two young teams in upstart form, albeit one further along than the other.
The basketball gods had no interest in making me smile. LaMelo Ball is sidelined with a wrist injury and might be done for the year. Gordon Hayward sprained his right foot and won’t be back for a month. The Celtics are struggling, and the Hornets playoff hopes rest on the shoulders of Miles Bridges, the Martin twins, and Bismack Biyombo. I’ll settle for Marcus Smart vs. Terry Rozier, I guess.
Right, the game, which despite the first quarter being… rocky, was anything but tragic. To start off, eight of the Celtics first 11 shots were from three; they made one and ended up attempting 16 in the quarter. Charlotte, inversely, attempted four threes in their first eleven shots, making them all. Sometimes it’s not too difficult to find what’s going wrong.
The rest of the quarter took place in an unfamiliar, unfortunate matrix; let’s just say it felt like we had just taken the red pill, suddenly entering a world where the truth of reality is warped in its entirety. Romeo Langford returned to action for the first time this season and immediately stepped out of bounds. Payton Pritchard missed a point-blank finger roll layup on a fast break. Cody Zeller outrebounded every player to appear, and he didn’t grab a single defensive rebound.
On a positive note, Evan Fournier still couldn’t miss: going back to Friday night’s win over the Houston Rockets, he’d made nine-straight threes after making two in the quarter. Jaylen Brown led the team with 11, while Terry Rozier rewrote his script as a non-Celtic playing in TD Garden by scoring 10 in the first. After one, Charlotte led 26-25.
So, not all bad. Just ugly. There is a very slight difference.
The second quarter took the blue pill, if you will. In just over five minutes of play, the Celtics had shot out of a cannon and onto a 19-4 run, reclaiming a big lead and suddenly playing in tune. Romeo Langford hit his first shot – a three – since the Bubble™. He also did this:
Not only is it, as they say, about damn time, but it’s phenomenal rotational defense. Langford’s head snaps on a swivel to react to an uber-quick spin move from Miles Bridges and then meets him at the rim, no problem. For a guy who hasn’t played since September, this is elite-level stuff. Fine, I’ll say it: PUT IT IN THE LOUVRE.
While we’re stroking egos, I’ll be taking the next seven paragraphs to talk about this pass from Kemba Walker.
Kemba couldn’t buy a shot in the first half – he finally found his stroke late in the second quarter, regaining his confidence in getting to the rim and pulling back for his trademark mid-range jumpers. And frankly, had he missed every shot all night, it could’ve been forgiven because of this pass. For one, he doesn’t look at Brown. He just trusts that his target will be in the spot he’s supposed to be. But he also pulls the entire defense in his direction, elevates, and throws a bullet, one that Brown merely has to sidestep to catch and shoot. Lesser point guards would have lobbed this pass in Brown’s direction, forcing him to make a catch, but allowing the defense to reset. This is delivered on a rope.
Kemba has had the most inconsistent year of his career this season, but if he makes plays like that (and yes, at least returns to two-thirds of the shot creator he once was), he’ll be – *winces* – worth the money. He also gave his teammates a reason to smile, which I normally wouldn’t bother acknowledging, yet this season elected to screenshot.
Fine, only two paragraphs. Through two, the Celtics looked to have gotten their groove back. The halftime score was 58-43, thanks to a buzzer-beating triple from Marcus Smart to end the half. Brown led Boston with 14; Rozier led Charlotte with a sloppy 12, but six rebounds to boot.
Through the third, the night further trended in Boston’s direction. After Brad Stevens called an early timeout following a few Charlotte baskets that saw the Celtics slipping into old habits, things began to settle, and Boston further pulled away. They made eight threes in the quarter; Tatum scored 15 points; Rob Williams flexed following a strong bucket in the post, causing Brian Scalabrine to tumble into a giddy fit.
The Celtics led 98-70 through three following a Jayson Tatum three as time expired and wouldn’t look back on their way to a heaven-sent 30-point win. Mo Wagner, Tremont Waters, Carsen Edwards, and Tacko (!!) all received late-game minutes; a full TD Garden would’ve exploded watching this game. Six players finished in double figures; Evan Fournier recorded a box plus-minus of +24. Everything was in tune, a well-oiled machine that should be winning these kinds of games by 30.
Which is exactly what Boston will need if they expect to contend come playoff time, where they’ll undoubtedly be playing teams stronger than this Charlotte one, and possibly the Charlotte one we’ve been watching all season. It certainly doesn’t feel like all is forgiven in terms of the Celtics recent struggles, but there’s a different feel to the team that has won two-straight than there was to the team that lost two-straight close games upon returning to the Garden for this home stretch. The 76ers and Knicks are up next.
Let the late-season surge begin. As Scal said, “the Boston Celtics don’t do play-in games.”