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Celtics start new season breaking old late-game habits vs. Knicks

Where the 2022-23 Celtics would have crumbled, the 2023-24 Celtics locked in.

Boston Celtics v New York Knicks Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

There’s 4:10 to go in the fourth quarter. Quentin Grimes pulls up from the corner, nails a three, and draws a foul. Madison Square Garden erupts as the New York Knicks take a six-point lead, their biggest of the night in a game where the Boston Celtics once led by 12.

It capped off a disastrous stretch for Jaylen Brown and the Celtics that saw a tie game turn into a six-point deficit in less than a minute of game time.

For the 2022-23 Celtics, this situation spelled disaster. It marked the beginning of the end following a brutal collapse in a contest they should have closed out in the third quarter. But on Opening Night, while the 2023-24 Celtics still fell into the same offensive traps that got them into the situation, they did what their predecessors couldn’t: They fought out of it.

At that same 4:10 mark, following the foul, Joe Mazzulla called a timeout - an act he was oft-criticized for last season - and from then on out, the Celtics rolled.

“Man, that was big, right?” Tatum said after the game. “For us to call that timeout right there and figure it out.”

In the final 4:10, Boston went on a 15-5 run to close out the game, allowing just two Knicks field goals while also limiting their effectiveness on the offensive glass. “We stopped fouling, we limited them to one shot, and we executed on the offensive end,” said Mazzulla.

New York pulled in a whopping 17 offensive boards against the Celtics, and Isaiah Hartenstein led the charge. He snagged five of his own, and when he wasn’t grabbing the ball himself, Hartenstein was able to poke it loose for a teammate. His interior presence gave the Celtics nightmares all game.

And while he still managed to sneak in an offensive putback at the 0:18 mark, it was one of only two offensive rebounds in the final 4:10, one of which was a meaningless pick-up by Immanuel Quickley in the dying moments of the game.

One year ago, the Celtics would have crumbled. Come-from-behind wins were an every-night occurrence in Boston, but it was always the opponent completing the feat. But to open the 2023-24 season, the Celtics made a statement.

“Resilient,” new addition Jrue Holiday said of the Celtics after the game. “No matter if we’re down 10 points with four minutes to go, we always have a chance. I think we kind of just band[ed] together, started executing on both ends of the floor and got the necessary plays that we needed.”

The Celtics’ late-game defensive lock-in was matched by an offensive gameplan built around knowing the situation.

Of Boston’s final 15 points, two came off a beautiful cut by Holiday, who finished a layup, three came from a big-time Kristaps Porzingis three, and the other 10 came from free throws. Ten free throws in the final 4:10.

Boston was in the bonus, and rather than playing the same run-the-clock-out game that got them in trouble last season, they attacked the Knicks, got to the line, and were smart with their time.

Porzingis’ three with 1:29 remaining was the Celtics’ final field goal of the contest, and it was a dagger, but the free throws that surrounded it were emblematic of a smarter, more calculated Boston squad.

“It was a big shot. And important shot,” Porzingis said. “[I] made that one, and then Payton came in - cold - made some big free throws. And JT just carried us throughout the game. So, I feel like even though I hit that shot, it was a team effort.”

Last season, the narratives around the Celtics all involved their lack of late-game prowess.

Mazzulla never calls timeouts. Tatum and Brown waste too much time dribbling. The Celtics settle for bad threes in the final few minutes. The Celtics take their foot off the gas.

To open the 2023-24 season, Boston made it a point to put those narratives to bed. It’s premature to tuck them away for good, but on Opening Night, fans got to say goodnight to the old and embrace a new-look late-game Celtics.

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