BOSTON — The last time the Boston Celtics took on the New York Knicks proved to be one of the team’s lowest points of the season — an embarrassing 117-109 loss for Boston that required a big rally at the end to close the gap respectably.
Brad Stevens questioned whether the team was actually good in the aftermath and said it would have been a “shame” if they had completed the comeback they started.
“The Knicks deserved to win,” Stevens said. “And, you know we gave ourselves a chance, but that’s all it was. We’re certainly not a 48-minute team.”
Since then, the Celtics have righted the ship a bit — at least for the moment. A starting lineup that includes Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris has given Boston some additional energy, and Gordon Hayward appears to be getting his feet back under himself.
The stats look a lot better too. The Celtics are 4-1 in their last five games, during which they shot 41.8 percent from three. The team’s net rating for the season jumped up to 5.5 on the strength of a 13.4 stretch. That’s thanks to the offense — Boston’s offensive rating in the last five is 115.1, which would tie the Milwaukee Bucks for first overall spaced over the course of the season.
The success has been a bit of a relief, because the losses were grating on Irving. He said the loss to the Dallas Mavericks, which preceded the current three-game winning streak, was infuriating.
“We saw the way the fans were reacting and the crowd and we had had a few teams beat us on the road and they celebrated as if they had beaten — like beating a very good team,” Irving said. “You see the fans celebrating and that’s the stuff that really gets your blood boiling. And as a competitor, you want those environments, but you want to come out successful. The way you come out successful is that you stay together, make sure that emotions are not getting too high and you handle business. You play the game the right way and that’s at a very high level, not just in spurts or anything like that. We have enough guys that can share minutes so there’s no reason to just hold back. I think that we’re doing that now.”
Declaring the Celtics fixed would be a massive stretch. A five-game sample size can predict very little, and the issues that dogged the Celtics might require some time to evaluate.
But the recent wins have been a respite, and perhaps Brad Stevens has found something with his current starting unit. The more Hayward plays, the better he seems to get (which was predictable). The defense has remained solid, while the shots finally started falling.
Over the last few weeks, everyone — players, fans, coaches and media — noted that the Celtics needed to get their act together 20 games into a season. After all, 20 games can barely be qualified as “early” any more.
The good news for the Celtics? If they are rounding into shape now, there’s still plenty of time to rectify some of the problems the early-season struggles created and rise in the standings.
“I think that our identity is definitely forming a lot better then when we were playing against the Knicks that day. Just in terms of our energy, our focus, our lineup as well. And it’s just going out there and competing, and just having fun doing so. Definitely a game that I definitely remember, so, as a competitor, definitely, I can’t wait to play.”
The Celtics and Knicks tip off at 8 p.m. on TNT.