In the midst of both a long homestand and a long winning streak, you tend to look at the big picture. The C's went into Friday's 94-86 win over Sacramento coming off five wins in six games, and four straight at the TD Garden. You get caught up in streaks like that — and amidst a tough stretch of games, including Dallas, Utah, Denver and soon San Antonio, it's easy to overlook a team like the lowly Sacramento Kings.
But the Kings are exactly the kind of team you can't overlook. They're energetic, they're scrappy, they're the kind of team that'll blow you away if you don't come ready to play. They're hungry like that. More than anything, what they are is young.
Spencer Hawes starts for the Kings and is 21 years old. Donte Greene is 22, Dominic McGuire is 24, Carl Landry is 26. Beno Udrih is a relative senior citizen in this lineup at 27 years of age. Even without Tyreke Evans on the floor, this was a team of young, fast guys that threatened to run — literally, run — the Celtics out of their own building.
But on Friday night, it didn't happen. Simple reason: The Celtics came out strong in the first quarter, looking like they were the younger team out there.
They came out with energy, looking to beat the Kings at their own game, with speed. They ran the floor, they drove the lane, they made hustle plays to jump on 50-50 balls they otherwise might've lost. The Celtics started strong, and the result was a 32-17 lead at the end of the first quarter, capped off by a 7-0 run before the buzzer.
"[It was just about] getting stops," Celtics head coach Doc Rivers said after the game. "The thing I like is that a month ago, we would’ve been down 10 or 15, and now our team is starting to get that old feeling that we’re a defensive team. And if we have a bad stretch offensively, let our defense do the talking. And I think that stretch did that for us."
The double-digit lead didn't hold up all night. The Kings were persistent and fought hard to stay within range, and they managed to pull the lead back to six in the fourth quarter. There were parts of the second half when it looked like the C's would show their age — but when the starters came back out in the fourth quarter, they were ready to close things out.
"We were set up right there to blow the game open," Kevin Garnett said of the Celtics' early push. "And I mean, we didn’t do a really good job at finishing the game off, but I thought that we came out with pretty decent energy. We didn’t feel overall that we didn’t give the bench enough room for error, if you will, to come in and play and make mistakes and all that … You know, when you play, you play to open up the lead, and get a certain margin so that you have the freedom to sit down, but anytime you have to come in the game, that’s cool either way."
The Celtics used their intelligence and their teamwork to shift gears late. It's a tactic you'll see a lot in the playoffs — they'll come out strong, they'll run the game early with their athleticism, and when fatigue sets in late, they'll execute an efficient halfcourt offense and knock down shots.
That was the formula Friday night. The Kings made it close, but the C's stepped up and knocked the jumpers down.
Paul Pierce finished with 22 points. Ray Allen had 20. The Celtics' two leading scorers didn't have the same energy in the fourth quarter that they'd brought in the first, but they had the resolve to finish off a win. The shots went in when Boston needed them most.
"I believe that even in practice you have to work on the small little things with your explosiveness, not settling for the trey ball, trying to get into the gaps," Allen said. "The mid-range shot is so important as we get older, but then you see those gaps, you have to go right after it and attack the bigs. Both of us, we try not to settle. Just seeing the game and what the defense is giving us."
The Celtics could have easily overlooked the Sacramento Kings, perennial West doormats, on Friday night. But not this time — these C's came out with energy and closed it out with solid team basketball. These old guys have still got it.