These are the Boston Celtics that, with largely the same core from last season, were expected to compete with the top of the Eastern Conference. These are the Celtics that, with an actual healthy core, look like they finally have some chemistry and continuity they can rely upon on a nightly basis.

Boston still isn’t whole, but it’s earned some of its better wins of the season of late — and just at the right time, too. The Celtics overcame the Trail Blazers in a 116-115 win Tuesday at the Moda Center, courtesy of some Jayson Tatum heroics. That’s two days after a ferocious comeback win over the Nuggets.

The Celtics are hoping to return Evan Fournier from health and safety protocols, though the timeline is murky. But no matter: the Celtics are healthy, with guys like Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Kemba Walker playing some of their best cohesive basketball of the season.

“It sure helps when we have more bodies healthy,” Coach Brad Stevens said. “I don’t think it’s brain surgery. I think we’ve got guys that have now played a little bit together, getting in a rhythm together.”

Tatum has been next-level of late, building off his Eastern Conference Player of the Week honor. While Tatum started slow Tuesday, he scored 25 of his 32 points in the second half, including a 3-pointer with 8.5 seconds left that was effectively the dagger to down the Blazers.

The timeline adds up, Stevens said. Last season at around the same amount of games, Stevens said it was obvious Tatum was getting into a rhythm of “knowing what he wants to do on a given possession and also where his opportunities are going to come from.”


That’s manifested itself in varying ways, whether it’s the 3-pointers or getting to the bucket. Tatum’s aggressiveness attacking the paint has transformed his game, making it easier for him to get shots off. Tatum was 8 for 10 from the free-throw line, another healthy dose of fouls going his way.

“The way that he’s been playing these last couple of games have proven itself, and we’re gonna need that from him,” Smart said of Tatum. “He knows it, and he just continues to go out there and do that for us. We all see it; we’re all witnessing. His growth continues to go up.”

The pieces are finally fitting together, too, just as a similar roster saw them last season.

The Celtics are 8-3 since the March 25 trade deadline. That’s started on the defensive end: In those 11 games, the C’s boast a 107.1 defensive rating. That stout defense ranks fifth in the NBA over that span.

That’s a huge improvement compared to the rest of the season. The Celtics’ 112.6 defensive rating before the trade deadline ranked 24th in the league, one spot better than the Nets, who have been advertised as a porous defensive team.

“Mentality-wise, just kind of get back to how we define ourselves — and that’s on the defensive end, getting back to just playing Celtics defense,” Tatum said. “What we’re known for. We’ll make shots and things like that, but we got to get back to defending at a high level like we have in these last couple years. We want to continue to compete.”


That’s been a roster that has improved their effort, led by the reintegration of Smart. The former first-team All-Defensive performer took a minute to get his legs after him, but he’s excelled and back as the Celtics’ emotional leader.

There was one wild sequence Tuesday where he laid out for the steal in the Trail Blazers’ backcourt, where he was out of shot getting himself back. When CJ McCollum made a cut toward the basket, a sprinting Smart appeared out of nowhere, corralling the ball and somehow saving it to Brown for the steal.

It was the type of hustle play that made its rounds on social media — the quintessential Smart play. He said he’s seen all the chatter about how he’s lost a step or ineffectiveness because of injury, but said the noise hasn’t phased him. Now he’s back to doing what he does best: wreaking havoc for the opposition.

“Just getting started to getting back to where I was, proving to people and letting people know not to forget who I am on that defensive end and what I do,” Smart said. “I know what I can do, my teammates know what I can do, the league knows what I can do and that’s just extra motivation for me to go out there and prove it.”

The Celtics are rounding into their best form as they hit the stretch run; they only have 17 games left in the season. Tatum said they know they’re not going to win out the rest of the way, but they’re “playing the right way and feeling good about ourselves.”

That’s converted into wins: four straight and six of their last seven. The Celtics aren’t relying on some crazy luck or a string of stellar 3-point shooting games either. They’re gritting it out in tough, competitive games, letting their defense do the dirty work.


“I don’t think our record shows what kind of team that we are,” Tatum said. “I just like the way that we’re playing. Every game is important right now and we know it’s kind of coming down to the stretch. Obviously, we want to win.”

PLAYOFFS: Hours after Mavericks owner Mark Cuban called the NBA’s Play-In Tournament for the 2021 postseason “an enormous mistake,” Brad Stevens declined to give his opinion on having it. But the Celtics’ coach said he’d prioritize his players’ health over trying to avoid dropping into it.

The top 10 teams in each conference make the postseason. Seeds 7-10 on each side are placed in the Play-In Tournament. Teams 7 and 8 play each other and teams 9 and 10 square off with the higher seed hosting. The winner of the 7/8 game is automatically the No. 7 seed. The loser of the 7/8 game hosts the winner of the 9-10 game for the right to be the No. 8 seed.

The Celtics entered Tuesday’s action as the No. 7 seed but leaped up to No. 5 with the win and losses by Charlotte and Miami. Just two games separate the No. 8 Knicks and the No. 4 Hawks, so every game could be impactful for who does and who doesn’t have to play extra games.

“It is what it is. That’s the way they’re going to determine playoffs. I don’t really have a reaction to it. I understand the entertainment value when it comes to play-in games. That said. We will not prioritize our seed over our players’ health, that’s for sure,” Stevens said. “If there’s somebody that needs to sit, (Jayson) Tatum, Jaylen (Brown), whoever. I think we’ve been pretty consistent with that with Kemba (Walker) as well. We’ll land where we land. Hopefully, we’re still playing and we get a chance to move on.”

PAYTON PRITCHARD has had many memorable good games at Portland’s Moda Center. This won’t be one of them. The star guard who led West Linn (Oregon) High School to four state championships on this same floor, also had games here as an Oregon Duck.

But with COVID-19 preventing his friends, family or anyone else from attending, Pritchard had two points (1-for-7 shooting 0-for-3 from behind the arc), two rebounds, one assist and one turnover in 12 minutes in the win.

BEFORE THE game, Enes Kanter, who spent the 2019-20 season in Boston, made the rounds through the Celtics’ players, greeting and embracing his former teammates.

Kanter, who is in his second stint in Portland after one season in Boston entered the game averaging a career-best 11.9 rebounds.

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