There’s no margin for error in the Eastern Conference this year, it seems. The Boston Celtics, fresh off a thrilling last-second win over the rival Philadelphia 76ers, have found themselves in a dogfight for the top spot in the East against the Milwaukee Bucks, winners of 14 straight games. Looking to hang onto their half-game lead in the conference, the Celtics took the court on Monday night against one of the NBA’s surprise playoff contenders, the New York Knicks.
Unfortunately, that position is now in jeopardy. The Knicks are on a streak of their own, as it happens. Winners of five consecutive games entering play, New York pushed their streak to six, handing the Celtics their 18th loss, 109-94, and falling ever so slightly behind the Bucks, percentage-wise, for the best record in the NBA.
Malcolm Brogdon was tonight’s scoring leader for the Celtics, recording 22 points on 10-of-16 shooting on the evening. But while Brogdon excelled, most of the Celtics’ roster struggled, including yet another dud of a scoring performance from Jayson Tatum (14 points, 6-of-18). For New York, it was strong performances from All-Star Julius Randle and youngster Immanuel Quickley (23 points each) that powered their attack.
With Jaylen Brown absent this evening for personal reasons, the Celtics’ offense was, put frankly, rather dire. This was one of their weakest offensive starts of the season; they shot just 33% from the field en route to 15 points in the first quarter, coughing up four turnovers. In an apt summary of the first half, Grant Williams hit a corner three late in the first quarter, only to see it waved off due to a travel call. The Celtics quickly handed New York a double-digit lead, 27-15, headed into the second.
Two factors sat clearly at the core of Boston’s early scoring woes: a slumping Tatum and a parade of missed jumpers. Tatum started the game shooting just 1-of-6 from the field, and after Horford opened the game’s scoring with a three-pointer, they proceeded to miss their next 16 straight. It was a losing combination. The Knicks stormed their lead ahead as high as 20 points, and only the play of Smart (11 first half points and the team’s second made three of the game) kept it relatively close. The New York lead sat at 14 entering the half, 60-46.
The Celtics finally managed to pry the lid off the net as play began in the third quarter, more than doubling their three-point total for the game by finding paydirt on five attempts from range. The problem was that, even as the offense improved, the Celtics still only managed to draw even with the Knicks. New York had a counterpunch for everything the Celtics dished at them in the third — even as a highlight-reel block by Smart seemed to swing momentum Boston’s way — and after Tatum was whistled for a (fairly weak) technical foul, the Celtics gained just a single point on the Knicks in the third quarter. They entered the final frame trailing 88-75.
Progress continued to be incremental for the Celtics as the fourth quarter begin. They nickel-and-dimed themselves back to just a 10-point deficit in the early minutes, buoyed by strong minutes from deadline acquisition Mike Muscala. Ultimately, though, it felt like the 10-12 point margin was insurmountable. Every challenge was met with a Knicks response, and the clock eventually ticked to zero without any significant change. Tatum was ejected after picking up his second technical with just under four minutes to play, and that was effectively ended the night for the Celtics.
Next up, the Celtics will return home for the first of three straight nationally televised games, taking the court for a high-profile Eastern Conference matchup against Donovan Mitchell and the Cleveland Cavaliers at 7:30 PM EST on ESPN.