Over their recent slide in which the Boston Celtics have lost five of eight games, coach Joe Mazzulla has been preaching about the margins that decide the outcome of games.
By his own admittance, the coach has been ticked off that his team hasn’t learned the importance of rebounding, and not giving up second-chance points, during critical moments.
For one night, the Celtics flipped the script. And it was Grant Williams, who desperately needed a good moment after falling out of the rotation lately, who came up big when they needed him the most.
The Celtics led by two in the closing seconds as they fended off a late Timberwolves rally when Marcus Smart put up a wide-open 3-pointer that missed. But Williams was where he needed to be and corralled the rebound. The Celtics couldn’t call a timeout as Williams wrestled with defenders for the ball and they had to settle for a jump ball, but Williams won the tip over Rudy Gobert, and a pair of free throws from Jayson Tatum sealed the 104-102 win.
“Big-time play,” Mazzulla told reporters in Minnesota. “As I said before, we have a deep team. We have the ability to play different ways. Grant’s humility and professionalism to be ready to play and make a play like that is the reason we have a chance to be a good team. That was a big-time play.”
The Celtics shot poorly from deep. They got beaten up in a choppy game, including a scary moment when Tatum fell hard to the ground. But the Celtics relied on their defense and responded from one of their worst losses of the season on Monday in Houston.
“We just stayed the course,” Jaylen Brown told NBC Sports Boston. “I think defensively tonight we won the game. Keeping them (at 102 points), I think that was the key. We didn’t shoot the ball great, but our defense is what kept us in the game.”
Tatum scored just 22 points — 14 of them coming at the free-throw line — and went 0-for-8 from 3-point range, but it was Brown who carried the Celtics with 35 points, which included five 3-pointers, as he made big shots down the stretch to hold off the Timberwolves.
The Celtics led by 14 in the second half but kept their poise and never gave up the lead.
Brown may have been sparked by an incident in the second quarter. The Celtics star — who has been wearing a face mask since suffering a facial fracture last month — was inadvertently elbowed in the face by Gobert. He took exception, going face-to-face with the Minnesota big man and drawing a technical. But it seemed to fire him up.
“I felt like Gobert was being a little reckless,” Brown said to NBC. “I already have a broken cheekbone from J.T., so when I got hit in the face, I reacted. But I’m just glad we got the win.”
The Celtics led by just six heading into the fourth after holding a double-digit lead, but Brown scored 15 of his 35 points in the final period to hold off the Wolves. He got some help from Al Horford and Smart, who also made some big shots down the stretch.
The Celts found a way to win, and they improved in the margins Mazzulla was concerned about on Monday. But he wasn’t completely satisfied. It was a step in the right direction, but Boston still has plenty of room for improvement over the final dozen games.
“Just because we won doesn’t mean I feel that much better,” Mazzulla told reporters. “I thought we fouled too much in the third quarter, and we gave up some timely offensive rebounds. I thought our physicality and competitive nature was about a 10, and we just have to continue to execute the margins in clutch situations. … We just have to have timely execution on those margins.”