A win over the Los Angeles Lakers will make even the most despondent Boston Celtics fan feel a little bit better. But it wasn’t the final result but how the Celtics collected themselves after a rocky start that should offer optimism about what’s ahead for the green.
The Celtics overcame an early double-digit deficit by ratcheting up their defense and ditching brick-laying jumpers in favor of high-percentage finishes around the rim before emerging with a satisfying 130-108 triumph over an elderly Lakers squad at TD Garden.
Asked what the Celtics learned from the win, Marcus Smart noted: "It just shows that we’re not perfect but the fight is in us. It might not look like it right now but we’re going to turn things around."
That Smart, who was Boston’s most impactful player even if Jayson Tatum’s stat line was a bit louder, could say that with such conviction is a positive sign for a team that has had plenty of reasons to question itself amid a roller coaster start. Smart suggested he expected some early turbulence.
"New coach, relatively new team, new roles, trying to get that chemistry together on both ends,” said Smart. "Within the players, the coaches, the coaches within themselves, the players within themselves, we’re human. Things aren’t going to go as perfectly as we planned. But it’s what you do when things go that way that you don’t think they should go ... I think we’ve been reacting really well.
"I think we had some turmoil early on, that’s part of it, just trying to figure out a way to get each other going. And we’re doing it, it’s coming along. Obviously, we still have a lot of work to do, but we’re on the right path.”
Here are the four most encouraging aspects of Friday’s win, beyond simply taking down a rival that’s enduring many of the same early season struggles that Boston is trying to work through:
Resiliency: The Celtics came out sluggish defensively and sloppy with the ball offensively. Boston found itself in a double-digit hole with reserve-heavy lineups on the floor late in the first quarter when the game could have easily slipped away.
Instead, Smart and Josh Richardson paired up for Boston’s final 16 points of the first frame and kept the Celtics within striking distance. "We were great in that regard ... composure and resiliency and just never hung our heads," said Celtics first-year coach Ime Udoka. "It never felt like we were out of the game.”
Attacking the basket: The story of the Celtics’ season has been their inability to make open shots. That trend looked like it was going to continue in the first quarter on Friday night.
But instead of getting frustrated, Boston elected to change its approach.
Smart and Dennis Schroder started attacking the basket and the Lakers offered little resistance. Boston finished by making 20-of-28 shots at the rim, all while drawing 10 shooting fouls that led to a healthy 38 free throws. Maybe not surprisingly, it was the Celtics' best overall shooting game of the season while finishing at 50 percent overall, including a blistering offensive rating of 113.1 during halfcourt possessions, per Cleaning the Glass data.
Revenge > Pain: Schroder popped up on the injury report Friday morning due to a sprained ankle from Wednesday’s loss in Atlanta. But there was really no way that Schroder was sitting out against his previous employer, and a team that he fumbled the bag from.
Schroder shined by driving against Los Angeles’ cement-footed, effort-shunning back line. He was 6-of-8 shooting on all shots inside 17 feet. Schroder finished with 21 points, 6 assists (which led to 14 points), and 6 rebounds. Schroder had five assists in the third quarter alone as Boston took control. He even picked up a technical foul for barking at the Lakers’ bench with 5:02 to play with Boston up 17.
Said Schroder: "I twisted my ankle pretty bad in the Atlanta game, in the third quarter, I believe. But I had to be out there for [the Lakers]. I made it work.”
How Tatum got his groove back: A quality night in Atlanta helped light Tatum’s previously wet fuse and, seeing LeBron and Co. across the gym on Friday night, certainly inspired him to further elevate his play.
Tatum finished with 37 points on 13-of-26 shooting with 11 rebounds, 3 steals, 2 assists, and a block. He played some bully ball at times in the second half, made a handful of quality defensive plays, and avoided getting too worked up over a lack of whistles in his favor.
Said Tatum: "I didn’t think I’d be shooting this bad at the beginning of the season. I was never worried. I put too much work in to ever worry or doubt. It was just a matter of time. Hopefully I can keep it up.”