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C’s get results against Pelicans, but still have some work to do on process

Outscoring the Pels by 19 in the second half is great. Getting down as many as 18 in the first half is not.

Pelicans at Celtics Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Winning is very, very hard. Even with talented players, winning takes organization and effort. We learn early on in team sports that you should never, ever apologize for getting the result you seek. A win is a win, and you’ll take them any way you can get them.

The Boston Celtics are starting to win again. A tumultuous beginning to the 2021-22 campaign — stricken by COVID, injuries and general inconsistencies — has suddenly turned into a winning streak. The C’s have won five of their last six, including a big win over the Chicago Bulls on Saturday.

Monday’s outing, on MLK Day in Boston, was a tale of two halves. The first half was, to put it lightly, dreadful. The C’s turned in only 39 points, with none coming from their reserves, who were once again light contributors. Jayson Tatum only logged six points, and the C’s were ice cold from deep.

Finally, the switch turned on. Tatum netted 21 in the second frame, the C’s started pummeling the paint for easy shot after easy shot and finally drilled their open looks from deep. Boston missed 16 of their first 18 treys before going 8-14 to close the game.

“It looked like we woke up at halftime a little bit,” Ime Udoka said after the game. “Overall, the offense really woke up, playing with the pace we wanted to and taking care of the ball.”

Dennis Schroder had one of his best games in a Celtics uniform, finishing with 23 points (on only 16 shots) and nine assists. His offensive outburst, without coming at the expense of efficiency or decision-making, helped propel them C’s over the top and their offense to take off in the second half.

The real secret sauce for the second half was a more aggressive Tatum, punishing the basket and not settling for jumpers. Even Schroder acknowledged postgame that the C’s are at their best when Tatum is attacking the hoop. “When he attacks the basket like he did today, it’s really, really hard to guard and it opens up the floor for everyone else.”

On plays like the one below, Tatum would frequently settle for a mid-range pull-up. To see him take the extra euro step to the rim and shake his way through to the rim is such an encouraging sign.

Seeing one layup go in brings positive momentum, and Tatum didn’t stop attacking. He put the ball on the floor and had a take no prisoners attitude, going hard at Jonas Valanciunas throughout the third quarter.

The result of those drives, with a credible scorer like Tatum who is starting to heat up, is that help defenders collapse on the lane or start to ball-watch. If Tatum keeps driving, he’ll be able to create kick-out triples for his teammates, like he did here to Schroder:

The second half was great. Tatum was great. Schroder and Jaylen Brown were very good. But seeing them produce like this is maddening. This team crushed the Pels in the second half, but built a large deficit in the first place. They beat the Eastern Conference-best Chicago Bulls on Saturday, just a week after blowing two games late to the San Antonio Spurs and New York Knicks.

Yes, the C’s are starting to win more games again. What they need to figure out is how to get some consistency. Having all their bodies available will help, but the lack of inspired play on a nightly basis has been emblematic of this group.

Empty shooting performances from the bench have become the norm. Sure, guys like Aaron Nesmith and Payton Pritchard are good shooters in a vacuum. But neither are hitting shots right now, and the aggregate of two inconsistent guys off the bench is a whole lot of nothing. While it seems like Brad Stevens and Udoka believe these guys are better shooters than they’re showing (they probably are), that doesn’t necessarily mean they are the elite shooters needed on the C’s second unit.

Forty-five games into the season, we still don’t have a definitive answer for how the C’s construct their optimal frontcourt rotation. Do Robert Williams and Al Horford start together? Is Grant Williams better suited to play alongside Timelord with the first group? Should any minutes be regularly allocated for Enes Freedom?

Defensively, the C’s have been consistently a top-ten team for the last three months. Offensively, the team plays Jekyll and Hyde, relying on jumpers and stagnant isolations in one quarter and bulldozing to the rim and for kickouts in the next.

While the C’s are winning more games lately, they really aren’t gaining much ground in the standings, still sitting 10th. A win over the middling Pelicans was a step in the right direction, but victories over their Eastern Conference foes is the only way to ascend into the playoff picture. Wednesday’s game against Charlotte, who is a game and a half ahead of the C’s in the playoff picture, is one where consistent effort and showing up matters most.

Let’s hope we get this version of Tatum, Schroder and Brown more often. They can be catalysts that help overcome the general struggles and inconsistencies of everyone else.