What appears to be resonating for the Celtics in the past few weeks is that they are talented enough to overcome their sluggish lapses.
Either these lapses — which include lack of energy or lackadaisical play — linger deep into games, as happened Friday at Philadelphia, or the Celtics muster enough pride and fortitude to respond and rally.
The Celtics began Monday afternoon’s game at TD Garden as if they thought the game started at 7:30. They were sluggish, arguing with officials, and slow to chase loose balls and close out on New Orleans shooters. The result was an 18-point deficit midway through the second quarter and another unpredictable performance for what has been a wildly inconsistent team.
Yet the Boston defense never wavered. Jayson Tatum decided against launching contested 3-pointers and attacked the basket, and his teammates followed suit in the second half. The Celtics finished the game on an 80-50 run en route to a 104-92 win.
For all the injuries, COVID-19 protocol, lack of cohesion, and general upheaval they have experienced, the Celtics (23-22) again have a winning record. They have won five of six since that disheartening last-second loss against the Knicks, and they are taking advantage of the softer part of their schedule in an attempt to jump back into the Eastern Conference race. Incredibly, they are just 5½ games out of the top spot in the East.
That’s not to say they are going to catch the Bulls or Nets or Bucks, but in the last 37 games, they can still make up for a disappointing first few months.
“We’re growing in that area,” coach Ime Udoka said of closing out games. “Obviously going down 18 isn’t ideal, but to flip it back to 17 in our favor shows that we have some resolve and fought through it, which we’ve done a lot this year, but at times lost some of those close games.
“We’re going to keep grinding. Obviously, we’ve been doing that all year. We’re all looking for that perfect game, that complete game. The energy really was the thing that was lacking.”
The Celtics outscored the Pelicans, 65-46, in the second half, but only 15 of those points were scored on 3-pointers. They won on a night when the three wasn’t falling, which doesn’t happen often. And they countered a poor shooting first half by attacking the basket, making layups, and getting to the free throw line.
Becoming more versatile is the key to a Celtics resurgence. They seem to be cohesive defensively. The Pelicans scored 50 points in the final 28:22, and standout Brandon Ingram was held to 15 points on 19 shot attempts.
They are more reliable defensively, with the ability to shut down teams when engaged. The question, as it has been all season, is consistent effort and a more productive offense.
“Especially with how our season has gone, a little up and down and the tight games, for me, it’s nothing new that we haven’t really seen,” Udoka said. “You can see myself and our staff grow and learn from these situations and the players as well.
“We’re getting more comfortable being not whole yet, but having some consistency there. Guys being in and out was hampering us a little bit and I think everyone is learning from those situations, not just myself.”
The hope is the Celtics can make things easier on themselves offensively in the final three months of the season. They shot 57.5 percent from the field in the second half, with Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Dennis Schröder combining for 51 points on 18-for-31 shooting, and just four of those makes were 3-pointers.
Udoka saw a hole in the middle of the New Orleans defense and told his guys to attack it. The Celtics have to become better at driving to the basket, not settling for 3-pointers.
“We’re playing pretty good as of late,” said Tatum, who scored 21 of his 27 points in the second half. “If we get everybody back and just continue to build off this, we have 37 games left. That’s enough time to make up some ground.”
The Celtics are still 10th in the Eastern Conference, but the teams are bunched up. Six games separate the top-seeded Bulls and the 11th-seeded Knicks. The Celtics have shown the ability to play with the elite teams, but they must be completely engaged for these matchups. They won’t likely get away with poor starts and brutal stretches.
The Celtics fell behind by 18 Monday, but luckily, the Pelicans have the sixth-worst record in the NBA and are 27th in points allowed.
The goal is to eliminate these lulls and become the team that was expected to compete for one of the top four seeds in the East.
“We never felt we were out of the game,” Udoka said. “I’ve mentioned quite a bit, we’ve seen packages for guys in specific areas that get the shots we want. We like the playbook and the plays that we can go to and the multiple options. That’s improved throughout the year, and as we’ve seen things and tweaked things, that’s helped us offensively.”