With the Celtics dazed on the ropes, clinging to hope they could rally against the New York Knicks, Tristan Thompson rebounded an Alec Burks miss — that could have extended the Knicks lead to 7 — and fed Marcus Smart, who raced up the TD Garden floor and used his body to create contact and draw a foul.
Smart needed to make something happen. The Celtics were on the verge of another disappointing loss and there are times when forcing the action is a good thing for Smart. The Celtics displayed fight not always seen in the fourth quarter Wednesday.
They managed to beat a solid Knicks club that had every intention of winning here and cementing their status as a playoff contender. This wasn’t a typical botched game from the Knicks of the recent past. The Celtics took this one away, proving to be the tougher team in the final minutes for a 101-99 win.
Not only did the Celtics get back to .500 and responded from Tuesday’s dreadful loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, they finally figured out that winning games doesn’t always mean making the most shots.
Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Robert Williams each finished with 10 rebounds. Thompson, returning from a 13-game absence because of COVID-19 protocol and conditioning, added eight rebounds as the Celtics were the more physical team.
They defended with passion, moved the ball more than usual and then had someone besides Tatum or Brown respond with big plays down the stretch. Smart has been maligned throughout his Boston career for his shot selection and needless hero plays. But the Celtics needed a hero Wednesday.
Smart not only drained those two free throws to slice the deficit to 3, he followed with a go-ahead 3-pointer, offensive rebound and putback with three bigger Knicks surrounding him, and finally the sealing 3-pointer with 36.4 seconds left. Smart scored 14 of his 17 points in the final period, as the Celtics will conclude this seven-game homestand Friday with a chance at a winning record.
“I make winning plays for my team,” Smart said. “I’m going to give us extra possessions. My threes, I’ve always believed in myself, like I said. I [couldn’t] care less what anybody says, I’m going to continue to shoot it. My teammates continue to believe in me.”
They have to take solace in the small victories right now during what has been a tumultuous season.
“That was a what-we’re-used-to, grind-it-out, physical kind of Celtics win I think has been what we’ve been about when we’re at our best,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “I thought we played really hard, really guarded, super physical. Just a great response after a tough one [Tuesday]. That’s one of our better wins of the year.”
Brown led the Celtics with 32 points but he also contributed four rebounds and a key block of a Burks’s jumper in the final minute. He was passive against Philadelphia, turnover prone and erratic defensively. That nationally televised loss was embarrassing, again prompting discussion on national talk shows about why the Celtics have regressed so much.
“It’s so much outside noise, so many things that are shifting around I just needed to come out and be Jaylen,” Brown said. “My energy was just upbeat and I had a conversation with [Tatum] and [said], ‘Yesterday wasn’t our best showing. I know I got you, you got me. Let’s run, be us and have a great game.”
Brown said that the lingering affect from the 76ers loss motivated him to pull Tatum aside for a pregame chat. The topic of conversation was having better concentration during games, regaining their personality and swagger on the floor and trying to salvage this season.
“We’re both two driven individuals,” Tatum said. “We both know when we’re down what we need to do to get ourselves back going. [The talk] was real brief, just saying just forget about the last games, forget about what everybody is saying and let’s just get a win. That’s all we can control.”
While it’s unwise to place too much emphasis on any particular game, the Celtics really needed to win Wednesday. They are at risk of being in that dreaded play-in tournament that includes the seventh to 10th seeds. The Celtics are currently seventh in the East but 1½ games from fourth, so the final 20 games will be crucial.
The Celtics can no longer accept lackadaisical lapses in this stretch. That’s what made Wednesday’s win so refreshing. Boston didn’t always play well but it didn’t relent or succumb down the stretch, either.
Those Smart free throws started a game-changing 9-0 run midway through the fourth quarter and they made enough plays to beat a quality team on a night when the threes weren’t splashing.
The Celtics didn’t play their prettiest game but they may have played their grittiest game. It’s going to require considerably more of this togetherness, toughness and winning plays to salvage this season, but Wednesday was an indication that such a chemistry is possible.