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Following a lackluster, 116-107 loss to the Washington Wizards Wednesday night at TD Garden, Celtics head coach Ime Udoka challenged his team to bounce back with a more tenacious effort in Saturday night’s rematch on the road.
The players did exactly what was asked of them, buckling down in the film room and on the practice court during the days between the matchups, and it showed when they tipped off for Game 2 of the home-and-home series in D.C. But on a night when they were totally locked in defensively, the Celtics just couldn’t get their jump shots to fall.
Despite missing their first 20 3-point attempts, Boston’s interior attack and defensive effort kept them in the game and allowed them to push Washington to double overtime. But in their fifth overtime period in six regular-season games, the Celtics ran out of gas and fell, 115-112.
Considering the circumstances of playing a one-loss team on the road, missing two starters in Robert Williams and Marcus Smart, and having a brutal shooting night from 3-point range (2-for-26), Udoka was pleased with the progress he saw in the team.
“I challenged them and they responded,” Udoka said after the game, in which Boston held Washington to a 36.5 percent shooting clip from the field. “We had a few days of film session to clean up and get back to the training-camp-type practice and go over some fundamentals that had slipped a little bit with all these extra overtime games and trying to get the balance of getting guys rested, but also having them have practice time. They accepted the challenge and they played extremely hard tonight. No complaining about that at all; you just wish the offensive end would have caught up to our defense.”
Ironically, there had been no issues with Boston’s offense so far with the exception of their home opener against Toronto. The Celtics entered Saturday night’s matchup with the second-most 3-point makes per game in the entire NBA, so the fact that they couldn’t get a single attempt to fall until the fourth quarter was bewildering.
The C’s were able to stay afloat largely thanks to Jaylen Brown’s aggressive paint attack in a 34-point effort and Al Horford’s tremendous rim-protection in a 10-rebound, six-block performance.
“We shot the ball terribly tonight, but it was kind of old-school where it was just rebound and attack the paint,” Brown said. “Despite not shooting the ball well, we still could’ve won this game, and that’s the sign of a good team. We’ve just got to figure it out at the end. We were right there. Tough loss, but we had tremendous fight about ourselves. I think we played the game the right way, for the most part.”
The Celtics could have easily won either of their double-overtime games, including the Oct. 20 season opener in New York. But the fact that they’re even forcing all of these overtimes, and that they have overcome deficits of at least eight points in five out of their six games, is at least a sign of resilience.
“I think it shows we’re a good team and we're almost there,” said Josh Richardson, who produced a season-high 18 points off the bench. “I feel like once we get some more continuity on the offensive side of the ball, I think that hopefully we’ll be able to finish these games out a little quicker. Sometimes it's just an adjustment period.”
Brown agrees that it’s only a matter of time before their adjustments begin to pay off and that he and his teammates just need to improve their late-game execution.
“We’ve just got to figure out how to put these games away,” he said, noting how Saturday night’s game “shouldn’t have been in overtime. We’ve got to make plays down the stretch. We’ve just got to find it, and we will. We’ll find ways to win at the end.”
If the Celtics can sustain the defensive effort that they showed in Washington, where they held the Wizards to fewer points in double overtime than they did in regulation three nights prior, then those wins should certainly start to come. Their next opportunity will arrive Monday night at home against another 5-1 team in the Chicago Bulls.
“We’ve got to keep that up,” said Brown. “Get ready to battle again on Monday. We got to knock some shots down and be ready to guard.”