Celtics close out first half of season with fourth straight win

They’ll be on opposite sides of Sunday’s NBA All-Star game — Jayson Tatum as a member of Team Durant and Jaylen “Under-appreciated” Brown, as LeBron James called him, playing for the Lakers’ star.

But the two still-young Celtics’ stars finished off the first half of the season where they belonged, at the head of a 132-125 win over Toronto on Thursday night. The Celtics, answering a challenge from Brad Stevens four games ago, when life had a cloudier look, thus extended their win streak to four straight.

“After the game in Atlanta, when you looked in everybody’s eyes, like, we talked about these next four games are important and you knew we were going to be ready,” said the Celtics coach. “And I think that is a sign of a team that’s going to stay together. And I think it stems from, you know, our best players embraced that. I’ve heard Kemba (Walker) say it multiple times this week: ‘Nobody’s going on break until we go on break.’ And I thought that that was really important. So you learn a lot about yourself in those moments.”

Tatum scored 18 of his 27 points in the second half. Brown, on the attack all night, scored 11 of his 21 points from the line on 11-for-16 free-throw shooting, though he was 4-for-8 from the line down the fourth-quarter stretch.

Up until now, head-to-head competition has been something that only happens in practice between these two good friends. Considering that the NBA frowns on formalized – or publicized – wagering, Brown’s not particularly keen on revealing specifics.

“I definitely can’t – there will be no official wagers,” said Brown. “But with me and JT everything is definitely a competition. I’m looking forward to competing and sharing the floor.

“Just tell him don’t guard me – that’s all I’m gonna say,”

The sweetest part of this, of course, is the burden Tatum and Brown can now leave behind as they head to Atlanta. Stevens challenged his team, and they swept that challenge. The unusual parity in the Eastern Conference considered, they have rebounded from ninth place in the conference to fourth in a little over a week.

“I thought it was big, especially after starting off slow,” said Brown. “We played hard, man. It was good going into the break. We needed that win.

“I think we’re learning and improving as the season goes on,” he said. “We’ve made improvements in different categories, and that’s what it’s about. This is a different team than it was last year. We recognize that, and we understand what it takes to make winning plays. It’s not about scoring 30 points a game, it’s about playing the game the right way, trying to find ways to win. That’s the most important.”

The Celtics bench has also pulled together over the last week, on Friday night with Grant Williams answering back-to-back DNP’s with a 17-point performance on 7-for-9 shooting and three 3-pointers. In all four reserves, including 14 points and four assists from a revitalized Jeff Teague, reached double figures.

For Tatum, who once again led the team with 37 minutes, it’s nice to complete business before departing for Atlanta.

“Oh man, it definitely makes going down there a little more enjoyable knowing that we kind of finished off the right way,” he said. “Now going into the break, we can take some time off and enjoy whatever we’re doing, enjoy the All-Star game so for sure going to feel better flying down to Atlanta in a couple of days.”

Matchups, matchups: A number of players have ended up on Stevens’ bench if the matchups aren’t right. Against the Raptors, it was Daniel Theis’ turn. He only played seven minutes.

“I thought Tristan (Thompson) and Rob (Williams) were both pretty good tonight, and so they gave us something,” said Stevens. “Theis is a huge part of us and we need him badly going forward, but tonight I thought those other two guys were good.  And then I guess the one answer I’d have is we needed every one of those points because we couldn’t stop them.”

Teammates at last: Though they share the same hometown (St. Louis) and the same trainer (Drew Hanlen), Tatum and Washington’s Bradley Beal have never been teammates, until this weekend, when they will both start for Team Durant. Though they attended the same high school (Chaminade), they weren’t there at the same time.

“I was excited. That’s what I was hoping for all along,” said Tatum. “Everybody knows how close we are and the history we have, and it’s just a really special moment. Two guys from the same high school, same neighborhood, kind of grew up together, starting in the All-Star game from St. Louis, it don’t get no better than that.”

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