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Celtics Get in Groove

January 10, 2019

BOSTON -- After two-and-a-half months of underperforming and maybe even some mild soul searching, the Boston Celtics needed something to jolt them back into form and nestle them into a comfort zone.

Boston 135 Indiana 108

Believe it or not, their best player missing a couple of games last week seems to have done just that.

Guard Kyrie Irving sat out two games with an eye injury and the Celtics won a pair of blowouts by a combined 34 points. It’s not that Celtics are better without their superstar, that would be a ludicrous notion. It’s just that his absence allowed the rest of the team a chance to locate their own confidence and figure out how to best utilize their skill sets to benefit the team.

Irving is back from his brief stint on the sideline and the C’s look reinvigorated. That was on full display on Wednesday night at TD Garden as Boston romped past a very good Indiana Pacers squad, 135-108.

The under-the-radar Pacers (27-14) entered the contest with the fourth-best record in the NBA, but the Celtics had seven players in double-figure scoring led by 22 points each from forwards Marcus Morris and Jaylen Brown, shot 56.8 percent as a team and limited Indiana to 42.9 percent. It was a totally engaged and dominant collective effort from the C’s.

“I thought we had a lot of good performances from a lot of good people against a really good team,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “I feel pretty good about, but now we move on, we’ve got a tough one (Thursday night at Miami).”

Boston (25-15) has now won four straight, kick-started by those two wins over Minnesota and Dallas with Irving in street clothes. Remember, this is a Celtics team that was one win away from the NBA Finals last spring without the injured Irving for the entire playoffs. And it’s a team that has gone 17-9 in the regular season over the past two seasons without Irving.

Again, this is not a claim that Boston is somehow better without the five-time All-Star. But in the past, the C’s have had a tendency to stand and watch Irving, perhaps mesmerized by his outstanding offensive ability. Often, it was as if the Celtics figured Irving would just go win it by himself. Many times, he has.

That wasn’t the case against Indiana. To Irving’s credit, he has integrated himself back into the lineup in the last two games beautifully and allowed his immensely capable teammates to do their thing. Irving had 12 points (5-for-9) in 24 minutes on Wednesday night.

“We all understand where our shots are going to come from, the type of shots that coach wants from us and being aggressive going to the basket,” said veteran big man Al Horford. “I feel like as a unit we’re starting to understand how coach wants us to play.”

Second-year forward Jayson Tatum (20 points, 9-for-15) is back to showcasing his gift for scoring. He got the C’s rolling with 11 first-quarter points for a 29-23 lead after one.

The third-year forward Brown (seven rebounds) didn’t settle for jumpers, as he was doing earlier in the season. He’s now thriving in his role off the bench and is taking the ball to the hoop, which should be priority No. 1 when you’re a 6-foot-7 elite athlete.

Gordon Hayward (14 points, five rebounds, four assists) is feeling more sure about himself and finding a myriad of ways to contribute, whether it be bringing the ball down the court, knocking down corner threes, or grabbing boards.

Reserve guard Terry Rozier (12 points) is no longer trying to do too much, and is showing better body language on the court and on the bench.

Those players all struggled, at points, with finding a definitive role over the first two-and-a-half months, while Irving and Morris shined and largely carried the team. There’s a lot of mouths to feed on the Celtics, but everyone seems more satiated now.

The Celtics have had five straight games of 30-or-more assists and have shot over 50 percent in three of the last four games.

“I do think that guys know where their spots are and aren’t forcing the issue when they’re not there and taking it when they are,” said Stevens.

Follow Matt Langone on Twitter @MattLangone

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