Jaylen Brown, Celtics outlast Knicks, 101-99

Brad Stevens spent part of his pregame presser Wednesday talking about the various signs of progress he’s seen in recent games, despite a Celtics track record that would suggest otherwise.

But then the Celtics coach caught himself.

“I’m just going to shut up and see if we can’t maybe put a good game together on both ends of the floor and go from there,” he said.

Stevens would hold his breath all night, before a combination of big shots from Jaylen Brown (32 points), and big shots and game-changing defensive plays from Marcus Smart (17 points, nine assists) turned the corner in a 101-99 Celtics win.

The teams started the night tied for the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference, and the Celtics, with the win, moved a game ahead of the Knicks in the Eastern Conference’s precarious seeding race. At 26-26, they also moved within one game of Atlanta, a 131-113 loser to Memphis, and Charlotte, now tied with the Hawks for fourth. The Celtics are also within a half-game of sixth place Miami.

And they finished the night in a more bolstered frame of mind than 24 hours earlier, following their bulldozing at the hands of Joel Embiid and Philadelphia.

“I talked to (Jayson Tatum) before the game and we almost had to just forget about everything,” said Brown. “I said, ‘Let’s come out and play basketball. Be aggressive and be the best version of ourselves.’ There’s so much outside noise and shifting around, I just needed to come out and be Jaylen. Our team played great together tonight.

“We probably should have those conversations just more,” he said. “Sometimes the way things are going, how much pressure we get from you guys in the media kind of makes us less open to talk or more upset about things that aren’t that big of a deal in hindsight. Things could be worse. I think we still have a chance to make a run, and we still have a chance to do everything that we said we wanted to do. Sometimes one game tends to carry over, and today we didn’t let that happen.”

Tatum later shrugged off the notion that the outside “noise” is a problem, saying, “that’s always gonna be there.”

“We’re both driven individuals. We kind of both know when we’re down what we need to do to get ourselves back going,” he said. “(The conversation) was real brief. It was (saying) forget about last game, forget about what everyone is saying. Let’s just get a win. That’s what we can control.”

The Celtics improved their lot in a way Stevens said he hasn’t seen in awhile — with blow-for-blow physicality against one of the tougher, more physical teams in the NBA.

Tristan Thompson returned and created mayhem on the offensive glass. Brown, Tatum (25 points) and Rob Williams each grabbed 10 rebounds.

“That was a what we’re used to, grind it out, physical kind of Celtics win that I think has been what we’ve been about when we’re at our best,” said Stevens. “I thought that we played really hard tonight. I thought we really guarded tonight, super physical, second night of a back-to-back. We didn’t shoot it perfectly. We had that stretch at the start of the fourth where we went cold, but just a great response after a tough one (Tuesday) night, coming back and play another physical, tough team with Kemba out. That was one of our better wins of the year, all things considered, because of the way that our guys had to figure out a way to win.”

The fourth quarter was indeed a page taken from past seasons. There was Brown’s block of Alec Burks, and Smart’s ability to wrestle for the rebound and draw the foul with 11 seconds left. Thompson had come over the top to block Derrick Rose minutes earlier.

Smart’s fourth quarter was a marvel — his up-faking 3-pointer gave the Celtics an 87-85 lead with 4:32 left. His put-back off a Tatum miss, after beating Julius Randle to the rebound, was good for a 91-87 lead with 3:53 left. Overall he had 14 points, including two 3-pointers, three assists and two rebounds in the fourth.

“Just kind of learning from those experiences, those games that we let slip away. Knowing what it takes,” said Tatum. “Every game is a must-win later in the season. We need every game.”

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