The response, after allowing 70 points and 11 3-pointers at halftime, was to forge to a lead with stronger defense and hold on to a 132-125 win. The Celtics are feeling a lot better about themselves and their prospects after becoming a national story line nine days ago following that blowout loss at Atlanta.
The most beneficial aspect of winning their last game before the break is they can rest knowing they are ascending. Slumps are part of a season, especially in this COVID-19 shortened campaign. There will be nights when the team is just flat, but the Celtics have to be better, even on those nights.
They didn’t enter the break playing their best basketball but they did find ways to win in the fourth quarter, which is significant for a team that’s struggled in that situation.
This was as crucial of a stretch for Stevens’s influence on this team as it was for the team itself. Stevens would much rather his team plays hard on a nightly basis and execute well without having to admonish the players on a consistent basis. He’d much rather spend that time developing ways to maximize their skills in playing together.
Stevens definitely made some correct calls in playing rotations over the past four games. On Thursday, he basically picked up Grant Williams off the end-of-the-bench cheering section and the second-year forward responded with 17 points in 29 minutes on 7-for-9 shooting, his best performance of the season.
Jeff Teague continues to emerge as an important asset with 14 points and four assists in another solid performance. Teague had played himself out of the rotation, one of the handful of reserves who slumped badly in the first half.
The most important development from the past week is the players heeded Stevens’s words and played with pride, fortitude and passion. That wasn’t always the case the past month.
“I think we showed a lot of resolve to stay together and tackle this challenge together instead of pulling apart,” Stevens said. “I’m encouraged by the fact that we found ways to win but we can still be better. After the game in Atlanta, you could look in everybody’s eyes and we talked about how important these next four games would be and knew we would be ready.
“That’s a sign of a team that’s going to stay together.”
Veteran guard Kemba Walker preached several times to his teammates this week: “No one goes on break until we go on break.”
The Celtics didn’t relent in these past four games. They didn’t necessarily play beautiful basketball but they were able to make key plays when required. For a team that hasn’t been healthy all season, a consistent effort has to be the basis for winning.
“I think we’re learning and growing as the season goes on,” forward Jaylen Brown said. “We definitely made improvements in different categories. That’s what it’s about. This is a different team than it was last year. We’re building a lot of good habits and making winning plays. It’s not about scoring 25 or 30 points a game. It’s about playing the game the right way and trying to find ways to win. That’s what’s most important.”
The Celtics are just two games above .500 and in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, so there is much work to do in the second half. But they responded to their coach’s challenge, they cared enough about Stevens laying down the gauntlet with four consecutive wins.
It certainly makes the week-long break easier. Forward Jayson Tatum said his second All-Star selection was tainted because the team was playing poorly. Who wants to head to All-Star weekend and celebrate when your team is playing putridly? Tatum won’t have to worry about that now.
“It definitely makes going down there a little more enjoyable knowing we finished off the right way,” Tatum said. “We’re sure going to feel better flying down to Atlanta in a couple of days.”
The Celtics will definitely have more tough times (they start the second half with a game at Brooklyn) but it is now apparent Stevens has reaffirmed his command over theteam. The key is to avoid those mental pitfalls, lackadaisical play and complacency that made the Celtics barely an above average team in the first half.
The club put itself in a position for a second-half run with this winning streak. The Celtics need to find a way to sustain this momentum.