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Celtics need to continue good habits: ‘great teams stay the best version of themselves the longest’

Boston bounced back against the Trail Blazers, but now they need to keep up the pace as they hit the road.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

BOSTON – For the first time in a week, the Boston Celtics found themselves back in the win column on Wednesday night. They took down the Portland Trail Blazers in convincing fashion, grabbing a lead early on and holding it throughout the remainder of the contest.

That has not been an easy feat for the Celtics as of late. Heading into their bout against Portland, they had blown three double-digit leads in a row, leading to a three-game losing streak. Despite performing well early on, they fumbled late against a trio of Eastern Conference playoff teams. But now, Boston looks to be back on track.

“Very important,” Al Horford said of the win. “I mean, we lost three in a row in games that I felt like we played well [in] for a good amount of them. We just had some lapses. Just getting out of that losing streak, it’s good for our group.”

A 28-point lead against the Brooklyn Nets. A 14-point lead against the New York Knicks. A 15-point lead against the Cleveland Cavaliers evaporated in front of the Celtics’ faces, and for the most part, they fell victim to self-inflicted wounds.

Holding onto a double-digit lead isn’t easy, but blowing three in a row is taking that premise to an extreme. But with how offense-heavy the NBA is nowadays, teams can rip off runs in the blink of an eye.

“Just kind of like human nature,” Derrick White said when asked about slowing down when up by a significant amount. “You want to do it every time when you’re up 20 - make it 30. I’ve heard it my whole life. Even when you’re down 20, it just takes one play, and you kind of make a run off of that. So, you know that it’s a game of runs and just try to end their run as quickly as possible and just keep making the right plays.”

Heading into halftime against the Trail Blazers, the Celtics found themselves with another double-digit lead. They were up by 15 points with a chance to break the cycle.

Everything seemed to be clicking, but that’s exactly how Boston fell into the trap each time before. This time around, however, they managed to weather the storm even when Portland strung together a few baskets.

The Trail Blazers struggled mightily on Wednesday night, which made life a bit easier for the Celtics, but they still managed to break some of the bad habits that had reared their heads in recent games.

“I mean, I’m sure, in every game is a balance of that,” said head coach Joe Mazzulla when asked about how much of an impact Portland’s poor performance had. “I thought our guys, we emphasized a couple of things, and I thought we had great carry-over from our film session and from the learning from the close games that we had. And so, we can’t control what Portland does. All we can control is how we respond to the things we need to get better at. And so, they only had six offensive rebounds, and I think three of them were in the first half. And so, we did a good job of that. Our transition defense was better because our offense was better. And situationally, two-for-ones, we did a good job there.”

Offensive rebounds were a massive issue for the Celtics against the Knicks and Cavaliers. Mitchell Robinson grabbed a couple of timely ones in overtime on Sunday night, and the Cavaliers, led by Lamar Stevens, dominated the offensive glass in the fourth quarter and overtime on Monday.

But the Celtics remedied that problem against Portland, who just welcomed big man Jusuf Nurkic back to the floor.

Transition defense also showed up as a consistent issue during Boston’s losing streak. Whether it be on a fast break, after a missed shot, or even following a made shot, the Celtics were seemingly always a step slower than their opponent. Immanuel Quickley feasted on those opportunities on Sunday night.

Boston made sure to focus on that issue against the Trail Blazers.

“I think we did a good job of, especially with Dame, just pushing in transition. Just showing a crowd, showing the bodies,” White explained. “He’s one of the top players in the league, and just trying to slow him down any way possible is not a one-person job. Sprint back and just showing him that crowd. I think we did a pretty good job of that today.”

The Celtics put a larger focus on getting back and ensuring the Trail Blazers couldn’t run out and beat them that way. In turn, Portland played at a slower pace, and Boston was able to hone in on their half-court defense.

Now, the key will be continuing the good habits while weeding out the bad ones. Boston’s resilience will be quickly put to the test, as they are set to embark on a six-game road trip, which makes their win over Portland all the more crucial.

“I just think it’s a good win,” said Horford. “I guess you could say it’s a breath of fresh air. You know, I don’t like to lose. But it was important. Before hitting the road, we had a couple of losses here at home, and a couple of games that I felt like we controlled. So, I’m just happy with our group. Despite everything, we got the win, we held on to the lead, which was important, and now we get to on the road and continue to build on that.”

Looking at things from a larger viewpoint, there are only 15 games left in the season for the Celtics. Their recent three-game losing streak brought up some bad habits that have plagued Boston for several years and the issues are emerging at a less-than-ideal point in the season, with the playoffs right around the corner.

But the Celtics can only control what they can control, and a big part of that is focusing on playing the right way regardless of what time of year it is.

This is how the great teams separate themselves from the good teams.

“I think that’s always the goal,” Mazzulla said of playing consistently. “No matter how many games are left. I think the great teams, like I said, a lot of the great teams stay the best version of themselves the longest. And when you don’t, you got to quickly get back to who you are. And so, that’s the goal. Regardless of - I don’t know if we’re going to go on a winning streak. I have no idea what’s going to happen. But I know we have habits that we’ve had the entire year, and we’ve gone through small stretches of those habits waning. Great teams just bounce back quicker. So, that’s important. It seems like we’ve bounced back. We’ve done a good job of some carry-over. We have to continue that for however long we’re playing.”

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