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Celtics learned to floor it when needed, but can they do so again when it really counts?

While leading big against the Bulls Tuesday, Jayson Tatum and the Celtics did not stop trying to score.Danielle Parhizkaran/Globe Staff

In the NBA, seemingly comfortable leads can disappear suddenly. When the 3-point shot and the shot clock are mixed in with the winning team’s effort level dipping even slightly, it can become an avalanche.

Just Sunday, the Bucks wiped away a 26-point third-quarter deficit to defeat the Trail Blazers. A margin like that looks impossible to overcome when it flashes on a scoreboard, but can also be sliced in half in just a few possessions.

These Celtics are certainly not immune to the phenomenon. They have given up leads of 8 points or more in each of their four losses this season, including coughing up an 18-point edge against the Hornets in November.


But when they faced the Bulls on Tuesday, there was no collapse. Boston roared to a big advantage and mostly maintained it throughout the night, leading by 20 points or more for the game’s final 20 minutes.

Maybe it was because the Bulls stink. Maybe it was a fluky night. Or maybe it was because the In-Season Tournament, in which point differential was a deciding factor during group play, compelled the Celtics to keep sprinting until they reached the finish line.

Crushing an opponent is not considered a noble pursuit in American sports, but Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla hopes to extract value from the experience. There will be nights over the next few months when a big Boston lead starts to shrivel, and this point-differential experiment might just help the Celtics maintain their intensity in those spots.

“The In-Season Tournament has really helped give the perspective of ‘should we not be trying as hard as we could when you’re up 32 points or up 25 or up 18?’ ” Mazzulla said. “So, it’s just that level of perspective. If we can at some point be the team that’s the best at playing regardless of what the score is, it allows us to build a mind-set and habits.”


Joe Mazzulla said the unusual stakes of the Celtics' blowout win against the Bulls gave some perspective on sustaining effort with a big lead.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

The Celtics needed to defeat Chicago by at least 23 points to advance to Monday’s tournament quarterfinal against the Pacers. So Mazzulla played his starters deep into the fourth quarter, even after the advantage had ballooned well past 30, igniting questions about ethics and sportsmanship.

At the time, Celtics such as Jrue Holiday and Jaylen Brown said they understood why they were piling on but did not necessarily find the approach admirable. At the time, the team hadn’t really considered the longer-term value of learning how to maintain that fire until the end.

Boston gained a different sense of what it feels like to keep pushing even when a lead seems secure. Maybe the next time the Celtics surge ahead when the point differential does not matter, they will remember how to keep a foot pressed strongly against the accelerator. Mazzulla spoke to the team about the process at Thursday afternoon’s practice.

“Can we be the team that doesn’t fall into [letting big leads slip away]?” Mazzulla said. “It’s going to happen from time to time, but can we recognize it and give ourselves tools? In the heat of those moments can we go to things that bring back our focus? There’s a ton of blown leads in the NBA, and a lot of it has to do with embracing that.”

Sure, there are limits. Mazzulla has no intention of really running up the score in the final minutes of a normal game. But he wants his players to simply carry that mind-set with them. It might be easier said than done, because years of habits are unlikely to be erased by a Tuesday night game against the Bulls. But it’s a start.


Jaylen Brown scored 30 points in the Celtics' victory on Tuesday.Danielle Parhizkaran/Globe Staff

And in future seasons, Mazzulla said, teams and players will become more comfortable seeking lopsided In-Season Tournament wins, because they will be part of the fabric rather than an odd and unprecedented NBA pursuit.

He said that when his father, Dan, played professionally in Chile, his team once played a two-game series that would be decided by aggregate point total. His father’s team needed to win by six and was up by two in the final seconds, so it scored on its own basket to force overtime, when a six-point win would become possible.

In most European basketball leagues, point differential is part of the standings, so the general approach to games is different. For now, the approach might appear unseemly in NBA circles. But it has also become a teaching point.

“At the end of the day the core of that is ’you have a lead — are you going to play to increase it or are you going to not play and allow it to decrease?’ ” Mazzulla said. “So whether it’s an in-season tournament and there’s a point differential or not, we have to get great at that space of ’we’re winning and we’ve got to work on keep winning, not relax.’ ”


Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him @adamhimmelsbach.