For the past few weeks, the Celtics have consistently struggled to hold onto leads. They are 5-5 in their last 10 games and held double-digit leads in three of the five losses.
They got stuck in that same trap on Friday night. Entering the fourth quarter, they were up by 19 points and had dominated since the end of the first period. But in the final frame, it was Dame Time.
Damian Lillard poured in 25 fourth-quarter points after a relatively quiet night up until that point. Portland combined for 42 as a team, but Boston responded in a big way on both ends of the court.
“For us, it’s just moving on to the next play,” said Smart. “We got to have that short-term memory on both ends of the floor. I think a lot of times, we allow, because we didn’t make shots, [opponents’ made shots] to affect our defense. And then because our defense was lacking, we try to come and force another shot.”
Lillard made bucket after bucket, but the Celtics were able to find ways to score on the offensive end, despite a few lulls. They dropped 37 points in the fourth quarter, maintaining their lead and fending off the red-hot Trail Blazers, who shot 64.7% from the field and 77.8& from deep in the fourth.
Smart also came up with a clutch steal with just over two minutes to go in the game. Boston was up eight, but they were able to get out in transition off of Smart’s play and extend their lead to double digits.
Game after game, they allowed their opponents to affect the way they played on offense, but it was a whole different story against the Trail Blazers.
“We just continued to execute on the offensive end.” said Smart. “They did a good job of pushing the pace [and] scoring quickly. For us, it was just constantly executing. Whatever we had, whatever we did, whatever they gave us. we had to take it.”’
Jaylen Brown dropped 13 points in the fourth, prolonging his hot stretch of play. And while Jayson Tatum’s shooting struggles continued in the final quarter, he made up for it by staying aggressive and getting into the paint.
In past games, Boston would attempt to play hero ball, chucking up threes in the hope of maintaining their lead with absurd shot-making. And while they showed flashes of that strategy, they came back down to earth by the end of the game. The Celtics employed a “next-shot” mentality, choosing to focus on the play ahead of them rather than the ones behind them.
“Once we started thinking like that, I think that kind of took away a lot of the mishaps that we’ve been having,” Smart explained. “Those little walls where it just seems like we couldn’t score the ball nor get to stop.”
Above all, Boston showed resilience. In their losses to the Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks, Cleveland Cavaliers, and Houston Rockets, it was their subpar effort that ultimately did them in. Settling for shots, staying away from the game plan, and failing to play with any sort of energy.
Against the Trail Blazers, they found that energy again. Even when Lillard came knocking, they barrelled through and earned the victory.
“I just felt like we had that competitive nature again,” said head coach Joe Mazzulla. “I felt like we had that identity. I felt like we had that pop to us. And so, it’s important that we keep that edge, that identity. [We] still have to clean up our turnovers, but a lot of good things.”