Celtics vs. Nets takeaways: Jayson Tatum’s Game 1 buzzer-beater, final stand show Boston’s best attributes

The Boston Celtics’ 15-point lead had disappeared, Kyrie Irving had caught fire and there were only 11 seconds to salvage their series opener on Sunday. Derrick White pushed the ball in transition and gave it up to Jaylen Brown, who drove baseline, and, when two Brooklyn Nets cut him off, spun to his left and kicked it out to Marcus Smart. Instead of trying to be the hero, Smart pump-faked, dribbled past the two Nets flying at him and dished it to a cutting Jayson Tatum.

Spin move. Layup. Game. Bedlam. 

“Honestly, I think we all thought Smart was going to shoot it,” Tatum said. “So, last-second shot, just crash the glass; if it doesn’t go in, try to make a play. But when he took that dribble, we just kind of made eye contact. And he made a great pass. I just had to make a layup.”

The game-winner at TD Garden gave Tatum 31 points on 9-for-18 shooting, Smart his sixth assist and the Celtics a 115-114 Game 1 victory. It also gave Boston a massive sigh of relief. 

“Those are the best games,” Tatum said. “The games that are the most rewarding, the most fun, just as a competitor. We’re up 15 and we go down five and … the only thing you gotta do is just try to figure it out.” 

Brooklyn began the fourth quarter down by 11 points. It had committed 14 turnovers, and it had been beaten up on the glass. The Nets took the lead with a 15-2 run, driven primarily by Irving, who scored 18 of his game-high 39 points in the final frame. Irving did his damage on 12-for-20 shooting, with six assists, four steals and five rebounds.

Kevin Durant finished with 23 points on 9-for-24 shooting, with four rebounds, three assists and six turnovers, an uncharacteristically inefficient performance. Nicolas Claxton and Goran Dragic combined for 27 points and 13 rebounds off Brooklyn’s bench, and Claxton blocked three shots. 

The Celtics had a 56-32 advantage in points in the paint. Smart finished with 20 points on 8-for-17 shooting, plus seven rebounds and two steals in the win.

Here are three takeaways from the thriller in Boston: 

1. The last stand

The very last play of the game was the most memorable one, but the last 46 seconds had to be executed perfectly for the Celtics to escape with a win. In a timeout after an Irving 3-pointer, Boston coach Ime Udoka drew up a set play that called for Horford to screen for Tatum way outside the 3-point line. The Nets were top-locking Tatum, which meant that Durant and Claxton, their best rim protectors, were nowhere near the basket, allowing Brown to go one-on-one without worrying about the help defense. He got a quick 2, and then the Celtics needed a stop. 

Boston took a risk, sending a double-team at Irving with 10 seconds on the shot clock, and instead of getting off the ball, Irving tried to dribble away from it. He finally passed to Durant with four seconds to spare, leading to a deep, desperate 3-point attempt over Tatum’s outstretched arm. 

“Both ends, we got what we finally wanted,” Udoka said.

Durant is one of the few players on the planet who can make that shot, but the fact he had to take it meant that Boston had done its job. Horford grabbed the rebound, and off went the Celtics, in transition, with a built-in size and athleticism advantage. There was no need to call timeout and allow Brooklyn to put its best defensive lineup on the floor. 

“We talk about that all the time,” Udoka said. “If I don’t like what I see, I can still call a timeout and draw something up with a few seconds left.”

On these crucial possessions, all of the Celtics’ best traits were on display. They fielded a lineup with no weak links defensively — Smart, White, Brown, Tatum and Horford — and all of them needed to communicate, improvise, stay poised and be unselfish. Horford said he was proud of the team’s composure, and Smart described the outcome as “fulfilling” because they had shown resilience. 

“Especially because of the way we started this year off,” Smart said. “Those type of games, we would have lost. We would have probably crumbled. And for a moment there it kind of looked like that was the direction it was going.”

Smart said that Boston “had a lot of games to learn from with those type of incidents, so we just wanted to make sure that that’s not how we went out. And everybody did their jobs.”

2. Big Al’s big game

Boston is asking a lot of Horford. The 35-year-old big man played 41 minutes, and he spent a significant amount of time as a roaming help defender, the way that Robert Williams III did before his injury. Horford also spent some time defending superstars on the perimeter, and, unlike the last time these teams met, when he switched onto Durant or Irving, he didn’t have Williams behind him, serving as a shot-blocking security blanket.

Horford finished with 20 points on 8-for-13 shooting and 15 rebounds, six of them coming on the offensive glass. As a team, the Celtics grabbed an astounding 41.7 percent their misses, making Brooklyn pay for playing two — and sometimes three — small guards at the same time and putting Seth Curry on Daniel Theis.

A couple of Horford’s putbacks:

He also missed a putback dunk on a fast break in the fourth quarter … 

… but redeemed himself at the end. Horford is the guy who double-teamed Irving on the Nets’ final offensive possession, and he’s the guy that grabbed the defensive rebound that led to Tatum’s game-winner. 

3. Irving, out of his mind 

Irving went bonkers, and it was almost enough. His late-game explosion included four 3s, three of them off the dribble, all of them difficult, the last one against Smart, a Defensive Player of the Year finalist.  

Tatum is an All-Defense type himself, and he’s listed at 6-foot-8 with a 6-11 wingspan. Three times in the fourth quarter, Irving went right at him and got a bucket:  

“Obviously he made some incredible shots,” Nets coach Steve Nash said. “We’ve come to expect that from him. But in this environment and atmosphere, to make shots, we needed him. He was brilliant [in terms of] shot-making tonight.”

Game 2 is Wednesday in Boston.

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