BOSTON -- The Boston Celtics did not play one of their best games against the Orlando Magic on Sunday night and truth be told, they didn’t need to.
Before the opening tip-off against the Magic, Boston had already locked up the No. 4 seed and home-court advantage in the first round courtesy of the Brooklyn Nets — yes, even after getting hustled out of all those picks from the Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce trade in 2013, the Nets are still doing Boston favors — defeating the Indiana Pacers, who will be Boston’s first-round opponent.
It would have been nice for the Celtics to beat Orlando, but it was far from a requirement for them to achieve their goal at this point, which was to secure home court for at least their first-round series.
But even with their postseason position established, Boston played down the stretch as if there was something of great significance on the line.
It was a sense of urgency that has been absent far too often this season with this team.
But that was not the case on Sunday, especially in the pivotal fourth quarter.
Trailing by as many as 14 points in the fourth, Boston went on a 21-7 run to tie the game at 106 following a 3-pointer by Kyrie Irving with 2:50 to play.
When the deficit reached double figures in the fourth, coupled with the Celtics having already lost Jayson Tatum (shin) and Marcus Smart (oblique bruise) for the night, no one would have faulted Brad Stevens if he decided to pull his core guys off the floor and just let the team’s end-of-the-bench players finish things off for the night.
Instead, Stevens opted to ride with the group that was on the floor, impressed with how they were able to get back into the game by playing with — you got it — a heightened sense of urgency.
“You know,” Stevens said, “Sometimes you can build a little bit of something there when you come back from down 14 and it’s ten minutes left and you come back and tie it and have a chance to take the lead on a couple of occasions.”
Stevens’ decision to stick with most of his core guys and keep Aron Baynes and Al Horford on the bench (Horford had 18 points and seven rebounds but his replacement on the floor at that time, Daniel Theis, was playing exceptionally well) sent a clear an undeniable message to his players.
“We were definitely trying to win,” said Boston’s Gordon Hayward, who had 16 points off the bench on 8-for-14 shooting.
Said Kyrie Irving: “There was a choice. We locked up home court (shortly before tip-off against Orlando) but just prove to ourselves we’re in any game, any point. You know, (down) 14 points with nine minutes left on the clock we’re still in great shape. So go out and compete.”
And that maybe more than anything else, is the big takeaway from Sunday’s game.
Even with their postseason fate sealed, the Celtics played with a hunger in the fourth quarter that needs to be a constant in the postseason where the stakes will be even higher.
“This whole week has been good for us,” Horford said. “We’ve been challenged and I feel like our team has answered and played at a high level like we needed to. Tonight was just another night where we played really well, but just came up short.”
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