C’s Fight Through Exhaustion, Fend Off Pelicans

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BOSTON – Boston’s two-week West Coast trip may have wrapped up Sunday night, but its players were still feeling its effects when they returned to TD Garden to host the New Orleans Pelicans on Wednesday.

The Celtics, who shot 41.4 percent from the field and 29.4 percent from 3-point range, seemed a little low on fuel at times. They allowed an injury-plagued, lottery-bound Pelicans team to battle back from a 16-point third quarter deficit and hang with them till the closing minutes of the game.

Fortunately, Boston found just enough juice in its tank at the end to fend off New Orleans and pull away with a 104-97 win.

“I thought we looked a little road-weary,” reflected C’s coach Brad Stevens, “but on those nights you have to find a way. When we went up [16], we let our foot off the gas. They did a great job of putting their foot on the gas and getting back into the game.”

Boston accelerated at just the right moment, however, as it crushed New Orleans’ comeback attempt and secured a crucial victory.

The Pelicans were trailing by four points with exactly one minute remaining when guard Tim Frazier came up with a clutch steal and found Luke Babbitt waiting wide-open under the basket. When Babbitt received the pass, it appeared as if he was going to bank home an easy layup, but Amir Johnson came out of nowhere to block the shot.

Terry Rozier came up with the rebound, and on Boston’s ensuing possession Isaiah Thomas found Avery Bradley for a 3-point dagger that put the C’s up by seven.

The Celtics walked off the court 32 seconds later with their 46th win of the season; but achieving that feat was far from easy, as the team struggled to discover a flow during its first East Coast game in two weeks.

“The first couple of the minutes of the game it was [challenging] just trying to find a rhythm again and getting back used to it,” said Marcus Smart, who scored 11 points before leaving the game during the fourth quarter with a laceration above his right eye.

Smart, who required four stitches to close the wound, said that once the C’s found a rhythm, it became easier to get back into the swing of things.

“It wasn’t as hard as it should have been,” he explained. “We’ve all been in this situation – AAU ball in the summer growing up – so traveling isn’t anything new to us.”

It was challenging for some of the Celtics, however, such as banged-up Jae Crowder who is still fighting his way back to full form following an ankle sprain that left him sidelined for the last three weeks of March.

Crowder refused to let his condition get the best of him, however, as he played a game-high 34 minutes and 25 seconds, and scored 14 points.

“I’m very fatigued, very tired,” he admitted, “but I just think I gotta take these next few games and just try to push it, push it, push it, and just try to get in the best shape I can going into the Playoffs.”

Isaiah Thomas also pushed himself to the max Wednesday night as he tallied game highs in points (32) and assists (eight), to go along with a game-best plus minus rating of plus-22. The All-Star point guard understands the magnitude of capturing a win like this following a grueling, late-season West Coast roadie.

“We’re a little jet lagged still, time is still a little messed up for us,” said Thomas, “but as long as we got the win, that’s all that matters.”

While it appeared to be an ugly win on the surface, Wednesday’s victory was truly impressive, even coming against a struggling opponent.

“I was actually pretty pleased,” said Stevens, “because I knew it was going to be really hard due to the circumstances of everything. So getting back, getting a game under our belt and getting 48 more hours should feel pretty good to us.”

Forty-eight hours is approximately the amount of off-time the C’s have from the end of Wednesday’s game to the start of Friday’s contest against Milwaukee.

In between now and then, Boston will rest as much as possible as they look to fully shake off their post-trip exhaustion in order to be fresh for the critical final week of the regular season.