BOSTON — Coming into the season, no game with the Knicks figured to be a mile-marker for the Celtics.
While Boston was expected to contend for a championship, only “Phantom of the Opera” has been running longer in New York than the Knicks’ rebuilding show.
But while the Celtics have higher-profile games upcoming, this victory felt noteworthy. Thursday’s 128-100 win seemed to be a natural benchmark of Boston’s recent improvement. Just 15 days ago, the Celtics looked awful in almost every way imaginable. They couldn’t shoot, didn’t defend and lost ugly, 117-109, to a bad Knicks team at home.
The close proximity of that game and this one coupled with Boston’s improvement since, made Thursday a opportunity to measure progress and there was plenty of it.
The Celtics looked much more cohesive and engaged Thursday. They came out strong in the first quarter, setting an opposite tone from last time. Boston led throughout and was never really threatened. Each time the Knicks made it close, the Celtics stepped on the gas to increase their advantage before cruising in the fourth quarter.
They looked like a weight is off their shoulders. Whatever mental stress and pressure was created by their early-season woes seems have dissipated considerably. Mistakes are just mistakes now, not symptoms of some greater undiagnosed disease.
“The one thing we can take from our struggles early on was all the fun we weren’t having,” Kyrie Irving said after a 22-point, eight-assist effort. “It wasn’t good basketball. We weren’t cheering for one another or doing the little things. Certain guys would probably be fearful to talk about it, but it goes on in every NBA locker room. Guys have egos. Guys think they have the best way of winning.
“All in all we just want the best for one another. At this point we’re just playing with a sense of effort,” Irving continued. “Now it’s not about who’s playing or who has more talent, it’s about who is going to give that effort every time down and who’s going to demand it from one another. From there we can start building some great championship habits.”
Marcus Smart’s increased minutes and role appears to embody Irving’s point. When the Boston takes on more of his personality, they play harder, grittier and better.
The Celtics have won five of six games since the earlier loss to New York. They aren’t as good as they were projected to be or as good as they can be, yet. But they had to get out of the hole before they could start climbing the mountain.