BOSTON – Two different versions of the Boston Celtics came to play Wednesday night at TD Garden: the team that came out sluggish in the first half against the Indiana Pacers and fell behind by 30 points, and the team that stormed back in the second half, hacking off 25 points from that deficit before falling 117-112.
After the game, C’s interim head coach Joe Mazzulla left the team with not so much a message to sit on, but rather a decision to act on moving forward. “We have a choice to make: what team do we want to be? The team we were in the first half or the second half?”
The first-half version, which trailed 71-43 at the break, reflected the Celtics of late: a team that’s struggled on the offensive end, leading to five losses in its last six contests.
The second-half version, which scored 42 points in the third quarter to nearly match its entire first-half total, reflected the Celtics that we saw throughout the first month and a half of the season: a nearly unstoppable offensive juggernaut led by MVP frontrunner Jayson Tatum (41 points, including 28 in the second half).
It had been exactly two weeks since that juggernaut last surfaced, dating back to a 125-98 drubbing of the Phoenix Suns on Dec. 7. And even though they couldn’t hand the city of Indianapolis its second 30-point collapse of the week (after the Colts’ 33-point meltdown against the Minnesota Vikings Saturday afternoon), there were at least some signs of improvement for the Celtics.
“I thought we did a good job just putting pressure on the rim and making the right read,” said Mazzulla. “That was important that we kept playing with pace and force and we did a great job in the third quarter of coming back defensively.
“But there are three things,” he added. “There's, first, not getting outplayed in the first half, then there's the positive of playing better in the second half, and then when you do get it close after using all that energy, you have to execute in the details.”
Boston only checked off one of those boxes Wednesday night, as it just couldn’t get over the hump in the closing minutes.
“We dug ourselves too deep of a hole to really pull it all the way through,” said Malcolm Brogdon.
The Celtics have only been able to pull through twice in the past two weeks, but even the best teams go through patches of turbulence over the course of the regular season. They just have to remember how to find their way back into the jet stream, and Mazzulla has no doubt that this experienced group can do just that.
“In moments like this, it's important to trust your guys, because they've been through a lot,” he said. “They've had games like this, and they've had bounce-backs and we've proven to be a really good team.”
The Celtics proved that to be the case in the second half, refusing to give up despite facing such a daunting deficit. And even though they lost, those types of resilient efforts can help generate positive momentum.
At the very least, it was an awakening, according to Brogdon.
“I think we need a sense of urgency, and I think we’re starting to get that,” said the veteran combo guard. “I think that second half showed us we can have and play with a sense of urgency, and I think we will.”