When the Boston faced the Charlotte Hornets earlier this season, the Celtics entered that tilt having won five of their last six games, feeling as though the early season struggles may be in the rearview. Of those five wins, four came against solid Eastern Conference competitors — the Indiana Pacers (twice), the New York Knicks, and the Chicago Bulls. The schedule moving forward was filled with winnable games aplenty; a streak felt all-but inevitable.
Then, true to form, the Celtics lost to the Hornets, 111-102, and followed it up with a frankly pathetic losing effort to the Portland Trail Blazers, 109-105. Questions, those that had begun fading into the background, swirled again. Doubts, those that were starting to wither away, albeit cautiously, no longer felt like distant memories.
So when Boston took on the Hornets on Wednesday having won four out of five, and the result was a 113-107 win this time around, there was plenty of reason to revert to previous moods. Goodbye, questions; hello, optimism.
Okay, okay, so it’s not that simple. But there’s enough going right in Boston at the moment to convince some that this team, one that has rattled off as many three-game losing streaks as they have winning streaks (three of each, as the rule of threes would have it), is turning the corner. According to head coach Ime Udoka, it’s about time, and it’s imperative to see.
“We’ve been in enough close games to where we’ve seen it go the other way,” Udoka said, “so we feel like we’ve hit a stretch where we get the shots we want, get the right looks, and then buckle down on defense and make the right plays. That’s a sign of growth.”
The most important sign of growth came from the Celtics’ supporting cast, who were able to provide the necessary offense left on the table by Boston’s typical bucket-getters. While the Hornets were able to hold Jayson Tatum (19 points) and Jaylen Brown (15) to 20 points below their combined season average, players like Josh Richardson, Marcus Smart, and Grant Williams stepped up. Richardson led the way with 23 points, including six three pointers, while Smart added 22 of his own and six assists. Williams’ 12 points on four-of-seven shooting were welcome off the bench, especially considering the fact that Udoka elected to just go three deep in terms of reserves. Schröder, the only other sub to see time, was ineffective, but thanks to his teammates’ efforts, it barely mattered.
“That’s what it’s going to take some nights,” Udoka said of Tatum and Brown’s low-scoring outings. “It’s not always going to be your night scoring when they’re trying to stop you. But trust your teammates, make the right play.” And that’s exactly what the Jays did, combining for 15 assists (Tatum led all Celtics with nine).
The Celtics, as a whole, assisted on 31 of their 42 baskets and made 51.2 percent of their attempts in the win. While they were relatively unable to hinder the Hornets’ top performers from registering big scoring nights — LaMelo Ball had 38 points, while Terry Rozier (23), PJ Washington (16), and Kelly Oubre (15) all provided vital support — Boston’s team effort was efficient, more so than it has been of late.
“We tell them regardless of what your teammates do, make the right play and trust your guys,” Udoka said. “Tonight the shots fell, they stayed with it, but either way, if they do it or not, you can’t force the action and force your way into turnovers and poor shots. We want to play the right way at all times, make or miss and then rely on our defense.”
And when you can’t totally rely on your defense, you improvise. Roles evolve — like Tatum taking a turn at distributor as opposed to primary scorer, and Richardson as a leading shot-taker on a big offensive night. Seeing that, with this win, the first nine teams in the Eastern Conference are now separated by 5.5 games, executing across the board, no matter the responsibility, will prove vital moving forward.
“It feels nice, seeing us be able to execute when things got tight,” Richardson said. “Just seeing us kind of turn that narrative around is good, so hopefully we can continue that.”