Off-the-court storylines dominated the lead-up to Saturday night’s game against the Rockets: How would the team respond to a blowout so bad against their Eastern Conference rivals that TNT changed the channel?
What about Ime Udoka being back in the building – would the complicated reunion, and all of the media hype around it, ultimately serve as a distraction? And what about maintaining the franchise-best home winning streak – was the pressure starting to mount?
A few quarters of solid – but not perfect – basketball began to erase those storylines and help elevate the Celtics’ record to a historic 19-0 at home and an NBA-best, 30-9 overall.
The Celtics defeated the Rockets 145-113 behind dominant performances from their two All NBA wings and a third quarter that saw the Celtics explode for 43 points and a 26-point lead heading into the final period.
By the end of the night, Ime Udoka’s pregame presser, which was filled with a plethora of questions about his ambiguous suspension and its well-chronicled aftermath, was a lingering memory.
Fans met the former coach’s return with a healthy mix of boos and applause, and for the most part, players and coaches alike minimized the gravity of it all.
Joe Mazzulla was happy with the physicality and defense in the third quarter, but also acknowledged that there was room to improve. The Rockets won the shot margin, for example, a metric Mazzulla often references – Houston attempted 99 field goals to Boston’s 95.
“That’s a good win, but we got to live in the space of ‘we can be better,’” Joe Mazzulla said. Not that anything’s wrong, it doesn’t need to be a big deal, but if we can live in the space of ‘we’re a good team, but it’s not good enough,’ that’s a healthy place to be and that’s how we can grow.”
“That’s a good win, but we got to live in the space of — we can better. Not that anything’s wrong, it doesn’t need to be a big deal, but if we can live in the space of ‘we’re a good team, but it’s not good enough’ that’s a healthy place to be and that’s how we can grow.”— Noa Dalzell (@NoaDalzellNBA) January 14, 2024
When it was all said and done, the story of the game was the hot play of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, as well as the steady, off-the-bench contributions of Payton Pritchard.
Brown finished with 32 points in just three quarters, on a highly efficient 11 of 15 shots. In the third quarter alone, he went off for 21 points, including 4-5 from three.
“Just being aggressive on both sides of the ball – getting stops, pushing the pace, had some shots that I felt good about, and I just kept being aggressive,” Brown said. “Hit some threes, we just kept pushing the pace, and Houston felt like they were kind of on their heels.”
Brown acknowledged that just like last month, he felt he was playing the best basketball of his career. He’s shooting 53.5% from the field over the course of his last 20 games, and averaging 24.7 points.
At the same time, he’s made leaps as a distributor and defender that have sometimes been reflected on the stat sheet, and sometimes not (tonight, the defense showed up in the box score: 2 blocks, 2 steals).
“This is a beautiful game that we all get to watch and play,” Brown said. “I’m having fun learning and trying to reach my full potential, on top of being a team guy, on top of making sure our guys are in the right spots and being the lead, it’s been fun trying to figure out how to be the best version of Jaylen Brown and as the time has gone on, as the years have gone on, I feel like I’ve gotten better each and every year, and I don’t think that’s going to stop anytime soon.”
Jayson Tatum wasn’t too shabby either, putting up 27 points on the night. Tatum noted the team did really want the win, but not specifically because the Celtics were facing Udoka’s Rockets.
“We got our a## kicked the other night. So, I wanted to bounce back from that,” Tatum said. “Did I want to win tonight? Yeah, I want to win every game we play. So, it wasn’t like we’re playing Ime and those guys, I really want to win. It was more like, I want to bounce back from last game.”
Tatum did most of his damage in the second quarter, when he put up 15 points on just six shot attempts, before getting ejected with two technical fouls early in the fourth.
Payton Pritchard was phenomenal off the bench, finishing with 19 points on 7-10 shots, 4 rebounds (2 offensive), and 3 assists – including an off-the-backboard alley-oop to Oshae Brissett in the closing minutes.
Payton Pritchard throwing alley-oops off the glass to Oshae Brissett. pic.twitter.com/aYTa14q5Ja— Chris Forsberg (@ChrisForsberg_) January 14, 2024
With the win, the Celtics bounce back from a 33-point road loss vs the Bucks to deliver yet another victory for the home TD Garden crowd. Jaylen Brown acknowledged the off-court distractions take a toll, but that this stretch in the season is important in the long run.
“These are the moments that get you mentally prepared for deep playoff runs,” Brown said.