When Jaylen Brown stumbled to the floor inside TD Garden, his right ankle rolling awkwardly on a first-quarter drive, the Boston Celtics seemed to have all the wind sucked out of their sails.
The defensive intensity, already waning after guiding the team through a blistering February, completely vanished. The offense reverted to bad habits. And soon the visiting Hawks owned a 17-point lead, leaving Celtics fans nervously pulling up the NBA standings to see just how much room Boston had outside the play-in tournament.
But a Celtics team that has routinely struggled in the face of adversity responded with one of their grittier halves of basketball. The Celtics, rolling with some never-used lineups, including shuffling Aaron Nesmith into Brown’s starter slot, limited the Hawks to 33 second-half points -- this after Atlanta erupted for a 37-point second quarter -- en route to a satisfying 107-98 triumph.
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It might have been Boston’s gutsiest win of the season. A team perilously thin on depth lost one of its two superstars and still found a way to sustain on both ends of the floor. Most notably, the Celtics limited the Hawks to a measly 76.7 offensive rating in the second half -- 37.1 points per 100 possessions less than their second-ranked season average -- and proved a defense that had slipped a bit since the All-Star break can still ratchet up when needed.
The lingering question is whether can Boston sustain that defense, especially if Brown is forced to miss even a tiny bit of time after the cringe-inducing ankle roll. Celtics coach Ime Udoka projected optimism while suggesting Brown was testing the ankle after the injury with hopes of returning but the team should have a better sense of his timeline on Wednesday.
Boston’s preferred starting five featuring Brown had been a wrecking ball the past five weeks. But a team that already leans heavy on its top seven players is ill-equipped to handle an extended absence.
The Celtics' other starters -- Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Robert Williams and Al Horford -- owned a minus-15.1 net rating in 104 minutes together without Brown this season. Most frightening: Boston’s offensive rating plummeted to 99.0 in those minutes without Brown.
The more encouraging news: That never-before-used second-half starting group with Nesmith in Brown’s place outscored the Hawks by 13 in nearly seven minutes of play. The Hawks made just 2 of 10 shots against that group.
Derrick White and Grant Williams gave Boston a jolt on both ends and carried the team to the finish line. If Brown misses time and the Celtics elect to roll with Nesmith with the starting group to preserve second-unit continuity, then White, Grant Williams, and Payton Pritchard will need to shoulder a heavier load, especially in the brief pockets of rest for Tatum.
The Celtics’ offensive rating lingers at its middling season average of 110.7 in the 1,107 minutes that Tatum is on the court without Brown. But it plummets to 100.0 in the 369 minutes played with neither Tatum nor Brown on the floor. The encouraging news: That mark already jumped nearly a full point from 99.1 in the nine minutes without Tatum and Brown on Tuesday because of the efforts of White and Grant Williams.
The Celtics will miss Brown’s scoring punch, but the key is maintaining the overall defensive intensity should he miss any time. Heck, it’s key if he’s able to get right back on the court later this week.
Nesmith is still a raw individual defender but his hustle and grit should mesh well with so much defensive talent around him in that starting group. Boston showed Wednesday it can keep its foot on the defensive accelerator with the way White and Grant Williams defend off the bench.
The standings are cluttered and any Brown absence will complicate Boston’s hopes to surge towards a top-four spot in the East. The Raptors are lingering and will keep Boston honest because no team is going to want to open the play-in tournament against the Brooklyn Nets, who could be a whole lot more dangerous by April.