BOSTON — If Brad Stevens had his way, every game would be as easy as Sunday’s, when the Celtics sprinted out to a massive lead against the Knicks and ran away with a 41-point victory at Madison Square Garden.
They can’t all be like that, though, which is why Stevens also wanted to see if his team could gut out a much different type of victory back at the other Garden against the same opponent on Friday. This time, the Celtics started out with a 17-point lead, then fell behind, only to recover and run through the finish line to a 90-86 victory.
“I wouldn’t want to go through it again, but that’s exactly what our team needed,” Stevens said. “We needed to have a lead, lose it, be backed up against the wall and figure out a way to win.”
The Celtics (11-14) found a way after trailing by 11 points in the fourth quarter, with the Knicks (6-16) having figured out how to defend Jared Sullinger, who looked indefensible early on. Sullinger muscled into halftime with 17 points but finished with just 19. Meanwhile, leading scorer Jeff Green struggled to find any offensive rhythm, ending up with eight points on 3-for-7 shooting — although his last two points were huge.
Avery Bradley put the Celtics in position to pull out the victory by taking over the game at both ends of the court. His defense stifled the Knicks’ attempts to get into their offensive sets and he scored seven points as part of Boston’s 11-5 mini-run to turn a four-point deficit into a two-point lead.
The Celtics anticipated a better showing from the Knicks after Sunday’s beatdown, but the Celtics had their own things to prove.
“We all knew that was going to happen,” Sullinger said. “When you lose to somebody by 41 points in the NBA, everybody knew they were going to come out, they were going to have a gameplan, they were going to do certain things and everybody was going to be on their A-game. We kind of expected that, but we were just as ready as they were, because we were on a two-game losing streak, so we were just as ready to play.”
Stevens was hard on himself for sitting Vitor Faverani for the entire second half in Wednesday’s loss to the Clippers. He vowed before Wednesday’s game that the second unit would be “more traditional,” as in, he would utilize the 7-footer rather than trying to mix-and-match undersized big men Sullinger and Brandon Bass in his substitution patterns.
And, oh boy, did Faverani ever play Friday.
Faverani played nearly 11 minutes in the fourth quarter, contributing a 3-pointer and a huge layup to extend Boston’s lead in the waning minutes, to contribute to the Celtics’ victory. Stevens decided to go with Faverani over Sullinger, who played extremely well in the first half, simply based on the feel Faverani appeared to have for the situation.
“Very little brain power put into it,” Stevens said. “All vision of, “Hey, that guy’s really in a nice groove.’”
Faverani’s playing time has been erratic, to say the least. He is averaging 15 minutes per game but had played less than eight minutes in four of the previous five games, so he wasn’t necessarily fresh. Still, he stayed ready, which has become one of this team’s mantras. Even Sullinger felt happy for Faverani, despite the rookie’s success coming at Sullinger’s own expense.
“I just tried to do my work, my job,” Faverani said. “I’m working hard all day. I’m working with my teammates, so I just do my job.”
Faverani’s body of work on Friday consisted of seven points, four rebounds, one blocked shot and strong enough play that his coach deemed him indispensable down the stretch in a close game. That’s a pretty good job.
Courtney Lee had to admit luck was with him after he hit a pair of miraculous buzzer-beaters in the first half. But he’ll take it.
Lee got a hint that he was in for an interesting night when he was forced to throw up a wild 25-footer as the shot clock expired in the first quarter. To everyone’s surprise — especially Lee’s — the ball ricocheted off the backboard and in. All Lee could do was throw up his hands and shrug.
Two minutes later, Lee caught the ball in an almost identical situation. This time, the game clock was ticking down the seconds to the end of the quarter. With no other choice, Lee shot again — a little more on-balance this time — and swished home a second 3-pointer.
Even without those two shots, Lee still had an effective night. He scored 18 points on 6-of-8 shooting and added another, more conventional, 3-pointer later in the game.
It was quite the effort for Lee, who left no doubt which victory over the Knicks this week was more satisfying.
“Beating a team by 41, that all looks nice,” Lee said. “But showing that character and toughness and togetherness out there, winning those games mean a lot more.”