Celtics Swingman Jaylen Brown didn’t mince words about the way he played in the first half: “I had a shitty game today.” And he had a point, scoring a single point while attempting just three shots at halftime. Even Jayson Tatum struggled, scoring nine points in the first half.
It didn’t help the Raptors – who were limited in players and coaches due to COVID-19 – hit 3-point stacks. The Celtics fought early before finally pulling out in the second half in the 132-125 victory Thursday at TD Garden, although it wasn’t exactly comfortable.
As the Boston All-Stars worked through the first half, the Celtics bench has more than taken over. Grant Williams (17 points), Jeff Teague (14), Robert Williams III (10) and Payton Pritchard (10) all scored in double digits, joining four starters with more than 10 points in a balanced attack.
It was Teague and Grant Williams who led the way. Teague was effective on shots 6-7 and had four assists. Grant Williams scored a season-high in points and shot 7 for 9.
Both Celtics have found themselves out of the rotation at times this season, racking up DNP-CDs, but they were crucial in pulling Toronto away in Thursday’s victory. It’s that new bench play that has partly rejuvenated Boston’s season as the team soars high on a winning streak – and now deservedly gets a week off for the All-Star break.
“We’re just trying to find our way,” Teague said of the bench. “I think we have some good players on the bench who can play at a high level and I think we are starting to have some continuity. We are playing each other very well. I love playing with Payton and Rob, and I think they have a really good connection.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens has finally seen his rotation gain some consistency thanks to availability. Boston has battled injury and COVID-19, leaving Stevens with a disheveled list and respecting what he had on any given night.
The players are also starting to learn their role. But part of life in the NBA as a role player trying to find his way revolves around inconsistent playing time, said Grant Williams. Some nights players can find an impact while others make them sit up completely.
“You have to be there to support others and the guys are there for me tonight,” said Grant Williams. “I arrived just focused and prepared and you never know when your number will be called. So Brad handed me over tonight and threw me in there and I was able to perform at the level that we needed.
The Celtics are also starting to develop some chemistry on the pitch, Teague said. While Pritchard continues to impress in his rookie season, he had another advantage: plenty of playing time alongside Teague. Between training and the first reps this season due to injury, the save point guards know how to play each other out, Teague said.
This symbiotic relationship is also spreading elsewhere, said Grant Williams. Teague pointed out that there are talented players on the bench, each of whom can contribute to any night. That’s exactly what happened on Thursday, almost every reserve player who saw the court excelled.
“The biggest thing is just unity,” said Grant Williams. “Being there for each other, whether it’s attacking or defending, making the right play simple. And then supporting each other on the defensive. We did a great job tonight.
The Celtics’ offense dominated with anyone on the floor. They shot 60.8 percent from the ground and eight players were in double digits. The Raptors were also effective offensively, but couldn’t keep up in the second half as the Celtics took the win.
Of course, not everything was perfect – just as Brown pointed out. He scored 20 of his 21 points in the second half but said he was picked up by his teammates early. Tatum also didn’t appear to be his All-Star in the first half, although some scoring dunks put an exclamation mark on his night on his way to 27 points and 12 rebounds.
It’s a four-game winning streak for the Celtics now, sitting alone in fourth place in the Eastern Conference at 19-17. They reversed last week’s narrative, and Stevens said, “We’re not far from where I thought we probably would be” given Kemba Walker’s injuries and other concerns.
“We have shown a lot of determination to stay together and take on this challenge together instead of going our separate ways,” said the other night, “Stevens said. “But any of those four games could have gone the other way, and I think it’s important to remember that. So we have a lot of work to do to be the kind of team we ultimately want to be.