As the final horn sounded in Boston’s 113-104 win over the New York Knicks, the Celtics had every reason to breathe a collective sigh of relief.
They didn’t shoot the ball particularly well against the Knicks (4-16) and made more than their share of mistakes at the other end of the floor.
And yet there they were still in the game before ultimately finding a way to rally in the fourth quarter for a 113-104 win by doing what we saw very little of most of the game — playing defense.
Making it all the more impressive was that Boston’s defense down the stretch came about with their best defender Marcus Smart out following a blow to his abdomen that proved to be too painful for him to resume action on Sunday.
“I don’t know if it was his oblique in that area,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens told reporters after Sunday’s game. “They said it wasn’t as bad as in the past so I don’t know what that means. I’m sure we’ll get more information in the next couple hours.”
Trailing 85-81 going into the fourth quarter, Boston’s defense limited the Knicks to just 19 points in the fourth on 5-for-17 shooting from the field, which included the Knicks missing six of their seven 3-point attempts.
But it was clear that the Celtics, while pleased with the victory, were still bothered by how they played earlier.
“I felt we got outplayed the first half,” Jayson Tatum told NBC Sports Boston’s Abby Chin after the game. “We have to get back to having fun, competing.”
That’s what we saw in the fourth quarter which was just enough for the Celtics (14-5) to get the win for the third time in their last four games.
While it’s great that the Celtics were able to come up with a strong defensive showing in the fourth quarter on Sunday, it wouldn’t have been necessary if they had performed better at that end of the floor in any of the previous three quarters of play.
The Knicks have been the worst team in the NBA in the first quarter offensively, and they lit Boston up for 30 points in the first quarter on Sunday. The Knicks, who rank among the bottom-three in both scoring and field goal percentage this season, spent the first three quarters shooting somewhere between 50 and 60 percent from the field.
A better team than the Knicks (4-16) would have likely beaten Boston based on how the Celtics played on Sunday. And while the win is good, the Celtics have to be on guard about playing down to the level of their competition, which is something they did far too often last season.
There’s no question the Knicks did a lot of things to give themselves a chance to win this game, like blitzing Kemba Walker and at times Jayson Tatum with double teams that forced them to give the ball up sooner than they would have wanted. But that doesn’t excuse the poor job we saw defensively, which is becoming more than a passing anomaly. Instead, it's a trend that didn’t cost them the game on Sunday but should be something that’s worrisome to them going forward, particularly when you realize the competition this week at the TD Garden — Miami on Wednesday and Denver on Friday — is only getting better.
When folks talk about Jayson Tatum being a potential All-Star, these are the kind of games they are talking about. Tatum was about as dominant in this game as we’ve seen him all season, particularly in the first half when he not only led all scorers (17), but also tied a career-high in assists (6).
He would finish the game with 30 points on 10-for-23 shooting to go with a new career-high in assists (7), not to mention six rebounds, a steal and two blocked shots.
More than anything else, Tatum made his presence felt at both ends of the floor which is what a blossoming All-Star is supposed to do on those nights when his team needs a spark.
But with Tatum, it always comes back to one word — consistency. Every night presents a different challenge for him, and Wednesday’s game against a really good Miami Heat team defensively won’t be any different.
There were a number of players who had better numbers for Boston than Enes Kanter, but he was arguably the most important performer for Boston not named Jayson Tatum.
He had an 11-point, 11-rebound double-double for the Celtics with six of his 11 rebounds coming on the offensive end of the floor.
That activity around the basket kept the C's in the game when there were so many things not going their way.
His defense is what it is.
But to Kanter’s credit, they signed him because of his scoring around the rim and rebounding, two things he did at a high level that factored heavily into Boston getting the win and will continue to be something the Celtics expect Kanter to provide.
A 3-pointer by Jaylen Brown brought the Celtics within 93-92 in the fourth quarter. Moments later, Brown stole the ball and went in for a go-ahead lay-up that made it 97-95.
It was yet another example as to why the Celtics are so high on Brown and did not hesitate to put the Brinks truck on the road and show up at his doorstep with a four-year deal that, with incentives, could be worth as much as $115 million.
He made the kind of plays at both ends of the floor on Sunday that have Brown and the Celtics optimistic that as good as he has shown himself to be this season, there’s still room for him to grow into an elite two-way player.
And we once again saw glimpses of that player on Sunday, with Brown leading the Celtics in the fourth quarter by scoring 11 of his 28 points to go with five rebounds, a block and a steal.
It’ll be interesting to see how Brown fares on Wednesday against the Miami Heat, who are led by one of the NBA’s best two-way talents, Jimmy Butler.
Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Heat, which tips off Wednesday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Tommy & Mike have the call at 7:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.