Celtics

Led by Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, Celtics blast another good team: 5 takeaways vs. Timberwolves

"It’s been fun, even some of the tougher times looking back. We benefited from it."

Celtics Timberwolves
Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics shoots the ball against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Photo by Kathryn Riley/ Getty Images

On Dec. 28, the Celtics lost to a Timberwolves squad missing its entire rotation.

That’s not an exaggeration — the entire starting lineup and multiple bench contributors were missing. No Karl-Anthony Towns. No D’Angelo Russell. No Anthony Edwards. No matter. The Timberwolves pulled away late and the Celtics absorbed a tough blow.

At the time, we were less than kind to the Celtics in our takeaways, noting that “there are quite a few good players on the Celtics roster. We know this because we’ve seen them play really well for extended periods. Why aren’t they jelling? Why can’t good players who seem to get along well off the court build any chemistry on it?”

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On Sunday, the Celtics beat the Timberwolves 134-112 and ascended into the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.

What happened in the interim? For one thing, Jayson Tatum started playing like a superstar — taking his usual second-half-of-the-season leap into greatness. On Sunday, he scored 34 points and dished out six assists, and he is shooting an eye-popping 56 percent from 3-point range in his last five games.

“I wish I could start the season like this,” Tatum told reporters after the game. “Then I’d be the MVP. But I guess it’s the most important time of the season.

“Hopefully I’ll play like this the whole season next year. Just keep it going.”

For another, the Celtics offloaded the dead weight of Dennis Schröder (a bad fit) and Enes Freedom (a bad player) and empowered the likes of Payton Pritchard, who repaid their trust by making 20 of his last 27 3-pointers, including three of his five attempts on Sunday.

We may never know exactly why the Celtics struggled so badly in the first half of the season, nor what it was exactly that finally turned things around. Maybe Ime Udoka’s insistence that the Celtics simply needed to get healthy was actually true.

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But the Celtics are now the No. 1 seed in the conference and suddenly have established themselves as a team — maybe THE team — that nobody wants to draw in the playoffs.

“It’s been a journey,” Tatum said. “We’ve had to find our identity. Lost some teammates, got some new guys, we’ve had to battle.

“But it’s been fun, even some of the tougher times looking back. We benefited from it, made us better along the way.”

Other takeaways

2. An argument in favor of Udoka’s point about health: Maybe the only thing that could truly derail the Celtics is a major injury to one of their key contributors.

The organization certainly hopes Sunday’s news wasn’t that: Robert Williams left the game with what the team called a “knee sprain” and did not return. According to Udoka after the game, Williams was in “quite a bit of pain on the lateral side” of his knee which is the meniscus side.

It’s difficult to overstate the impact Williams has on the Celtics, but the numbers tell part of the story — the team is significantly better when he’s on the floor, and his lineups crush opponents. Schematically, teams are clearly intimidated by his shot-blocking, and teammates enjoy throwing lobs that don’t even really need to be particularly accurate.

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Williams might be fine. Udoka noted that he had no idea what event triggered his knee soreness, and even with three days off prior to Sunday’s game, the Celtics have had a grueling schedule.

Still, this is a concerning moment for a team that has looked like a contender since the calendar turned.

3. Here’s the highlight of the game — an off-the-backboard lob from Marcus Smart to Jaylen Brown.

“He caught us all off guard throwing it off the glass, but Smart’s got a great feel for the game,” Tatum said. “He knew JB was trailing to the left and JB is athletic enough to go get it.”

Brown finished with 31 points and 10 rebounds. In his last five games, Brown is averaging 28.4 points including 51.9 percent shooting from 3-point range.

That wasn’t the only great highlight, however — the Celtics ran this clinical fast break in the second half.

The Celtics are playing objectively beautiful basketball.

4. Apparently, Derrick White played on the same high-school basketball team as Red Sox first baseman Bobby Dalbec.

“Bobby can shoot,” White said, when he was asked about the connection by The Boston Globe‘s Gary Washburn. “He had a nice little jump shot and he was big, good size. His basketball IQ I think needed some work. Bobby was silent. I don’t know how good he said he was, but he was pretty good for us. He was big off the bench.

“But that’s my guy. As soon as I got traded, he texted me and I’m excited for him to get back out here too.”

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White noted that he needs to get Dalbec his Celtics jersey. Dalbec already has one from San Antonio.

“Two kids from Legend [High School], brand new high school,” White said. “We were the first two graduating classes. So two kids now in Boston, it’s pretty crazy. But I’m super excited for him to get out here.”

On the court, White seems to be turning a corner as a shooter — he was 2-for-4 from deep and 4-for-6 from the floor overall.

“Your mind kind of goes crazy, trying to critique this little thing here, this little thing there,” White said of his slump. “But just trying to stick to the basics. Try not to think too much about it. that’s usually when you start struggling. Just try to clear your mind and go back to the basics.”

5. Al Horford missed Sunday’s game for personal reasons, and Ime Udoka suggested Horford likely will not be available on Monday against the Raptors either. Meanwhile, both Brown and Tatum were questionable due to knee soreness prior to Sunday’s game, and Tatum said he would evaluate his sore knee again on Monday before he committed to playing against the Raptors.

“Still a little sore, but nothing to worry about,” he said. “Obviously it made strides from the beginning of the season.”

The Celtics and Raptors tip off at 7:30 p.m. Monday night on NBC Sports Boston.

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