By the end of the night the Celtics, ninth in the conference seedings, had closed the gap on Charlotte to a half-game, with Toronto percentage points ahead in eighth.
From his eight-man playoff-style rotation, with the bench playing one of its finest games of the season, to the way his team closed out the Hornets with a 113-107 win Wednesday night, Ime Udoka is starting to see the beginnings of a finishing kick.
The Celtics have once again won seven out of their last 10 games, as well as a season-high three straight for only the third time this season, with a visit to Detroit on tap for Friday night. They now also have a 2-1 series advantage over the Hornets with the series finale on March 9 in Charlotte. The Celtics may actually be taking care of some business against the other teams bunched together in that Eastern Conference logjam.
“It was great. It’s something that we’ve preached and harped on all season that we have to fix and we have to get better at,” said Marcus Smart, who stepped into more of a scoring role Wednesday night with a 22-point performance. “And what better way to come out against a team like Charlotte, to have to put that to the test and see what we’re made of tonight.”
Charlotte bet everything on blitzing Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and daring the rest of the Celtics to shoot. But the bench, in one of its finest nights of the season, stepped up to provide ample support. Josh Richardson (23 points, 6-for-8 3-point shooting) and Grant Williams (12 points, 3-for-6 from 3) both filled in the gaps.
“It’s normal. … Nah, when I was catching it, I was just taking my shots,” said Richardson. “I saw a couple go in. Once I see a couple go in, ah OK, it’s about to be a long night for somebody. My teammates just did a good job of moving the ball, finding the open guy and guys are just knocking shots down.”
Ultimately, the work of Richardson and Williams was good enough for Udoka to limit his rotation to eight players, though the Celtics coach later said he remains comfortable going 10 players deep with his lineup.
“You just look at the first half, J-Rich 6-for-8, Grant 3-for-6, Marcus hitting two threes, other guys contributing – that’s what it’s going to take at certain times,” said Udoka. “We tell them regardless of what your teammates do, make the right play and trust your guys. Tonight the shots fell, they stayed with it, but either way, if they do it or not, you can’t force the action and force your way into turnovers and poor shots.”
Though Tatum led in the assist department with nine, Smart and Jaylen Brown (seven turnovers) each added six dimes more in a 31-assist Celtics total. The Celtics withstood a 38-point, nine-assist gem from LaMelo Ball, and moved the ball well against the NBA’s leading pace team.
“A lot of things we did early in the year that were hurting us we cut down on,” said Smart. “The things that were helping us earlier in the year, we’re starting to do more of it and it’s definitely showing itself, not just to the crowd, to the fans, to the teams we play, but to ourselves. Everybody’s confidence is going up and everybody just continues to move on up.”
The Celtics, despite some stumbles, closed out strong after old friend Terry Rozier tied the game at 107-107 from downtown with just under a minute left.
Tatum, who complained his way into a technical foul that led to a three-point swing from the line by Ball with 2:10 left, hit two free throws with 35 seconds left for a 109-107 lead. Robert Williams provided the stop of the night when he blocked a P.J. Washington 3-point attempt. Smart, fouled with 15.6 seconds left, hit two more from the line for a 111-107 edge. Brown blocked a Ball attempt from 3 to put the game to bed.
“Just believing in one another. Trusting in the system we have on both ends, trusting the game plan, the scheme that Ime put together,” Smart said of why the Celtics are now closing out opponents. “And just trusting our instincts. We made the right play at the right time, we got the ball to the right guy at the right time in the right spots. On the defensive end, we didn’t have those lapses that we probably used to have when the game started to get a little close, when they started to make that run. And we came out with the win. So obviously we’ve got a lot of things that we need to clean up, but we’re headed in the right direction.”