On a night where Marcus Smart losing his composure will dominate the headlines and highlights, it’s maybe more noteworthy that the rest of the Boston Celtics did not.
Saturday’s visit to Atlanta was exactly the sort of game the Celtics have routinely fumbled away this season. Inferior, well-rested opponent playing against a heavy-legged Boston team on the second night of a back-to-back on the road. It’s been a recipe for disaster.
Which is weird, because these sort of games used to be the ones that Brad Stevens-coached teams feasted on. While much of the league seemed content with so-called “schedule losses,” Stevens never let his team use back-to-backs or travel as a crutch for underperformance. But this year’s team simply hasn’t shown the mental toughness needed to grind through these type of games, and you need only look back to Boston getting stomped in Miami to kickstart a disastrous 0-3 road trip last week for a prime example.
So when Atlanta jumped Boston, scoring 50 points in little more than 15 minutes and opening a 16-point lead, it seemed like the Celtics might be headed for another head-shaking, momentum-breaking loss. Stevens tried desperately to inject some energy into his team, going 11 deep with his rotation, including early second-quarter playing time for third-string point guard Brad Wanamaker.
Ultimately, it was a more familiar savior, with Kyrie Irving’s late first-half offensive outburst singlehandedly dragging Boston back into the game. Smart, before his double-technical fueled ejection, helped ratchet up Boston’s defensive intensity, and the Celtics eventually rallied ahead in the final frame en route to a 113-105 triumph at State Farm Arena.
"We needed that kind of response … no question about it,” said Stevens who deemed Saturday’s triumph a “good win.”
That’s a hard sell with Atlanta’s 14-31 record. But the Hawks entered with recent wins over Philadelphia and Oklahoma City, hanging 142 points on the Thunder before enjoying three days off leading up to Boston’s visit.
There was really no reason that Boston should have been able to rally back to win this game. Especially when typical energy-infuser Smart got the heave-ho for too much gum-flapping (both to referees and opposing players). Smart nearly made a bad situation worse when he tried to charge at Atlanta’s DeAndre’ Bembry while enraged about something that was said as tempers flared following the double technical as players lined up for a jump ball.
Backup point guard Terry Rozier took the intensity baton and continued his recent trend of applying occasional full-court pressure, which disrupted the Hawks’ offense. Rozier brought the same energy to the defensive glass, grabbing a season-high 11 rebounds overall and helping a Gordon Hayward-less bench overcome its shooting woes to change the tenor of the game.
Rozier and Jaylen Brown combined to make just 7 of 22 shots but were about as impactful as any players not named Kyrie. Irving finished with 32 points, 23 of which came in the first half.
The Hawks had an offensive rating of a measly 83.3 when Brown was on the court. His plus-26.7 net rating in 28 minutes of play leaped off the NBA’s advanced stats box score. The bench also got quality minutes from Wanamaker, Semi Ojeleye, and Daniel Theis to fuel the turnaround.
Aron Baynes remains spectacular since returning from a hand injury. Boston's defensive intensity spikes when he’s on the court. In the three games since Baynes' return from a broken hand, the Celtics own an absurd net rating of plus-31.1 during his 53 minutes of court time. That number shrinks to minus-7.7 in his 91 minutes on the bench.
Jayson Tatum shrugged off a dud against Memphis to score 19 points on 7-of-13 shooting, with all his attempts coming inside the 3-point arc. He added some solid defense, most notably intercepting Smart as he charged Bembry. Al Horford also ramped up his second-half defense and could be seen barking at his teammates to finish out the win after a late defensive lapse.
Saturday’s win won’t exactly be featured prominently in the 2018-19 season yearbook but it is another sign of progress for a Celtics team trying desperately to avoid the inconsistencies that plagued it for the first half of the season.
Smart now awaits his fate — be it a hefty fine or, depending on what discipline-deciders see on the tape, a brief suspension from the NBA — and he’ll have to explain how his temper got the best of him again. That’s too bad because Smart has been so solid at both ends of the floor recently that moments like this only detract from the progress he’s making.
He can find solace in the way his teammates reacted to the adversity of his exit. Boston players had every excuse to roll over and, instead, they found a way to grind out a win.
That's progress for a team that’s still shaping its identity and trying to find some of the magic of past seasons.
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