One of the most crucial factors in the Celtics’ rapid ascent to the top of the Eastern Conference in the early part of the season has been the play of their two young blue-chip forwards, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. The duo have established themselves as one of the best wing duos in all of basketball, blowing away expectations and reminding the NBA landscape why they were drafted so highly to begin with. Heading into Wednesday night’s tilt with the Los Angeles Clippers, then, perhaps felt particularly meaningful, as the duo would be tasked with going toe-to-toe against the most dangerous combo of wings in the league: Kawhi Leonard and Paul George.
Though the result may not have worked out in their favor, the Celtics had little to feel bad about in their 107-104 overtime defeat. They went toe-to-toe with the presumptive Finals favorites, battling from start to finish in one of the best games of the NBA season thus far. Though Brown struggled to the tune of 3-of-14 shooting from the field, Tatum was tremendous, recording 30 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks, and crossing up George to hit the game-tying three that sent the match to overtime.
Despite the star-studded matchup, the first half was dominated by defense. Both teams opened the game shooting worse than 40% from the field, including slow starts from nearly every high-profile player on the court. Walker, Tatum and Brown combined to make just three of their first 22 shots, while Leonard and George made five of 13. Most worryingly, the Celtics couldn’t buy a bucket from behind the three-point arc, missing their first 16 attempts from deep before Brad Wanamaker finally cashed in with just over three minutes remaining in the half.
Though it felt like the Clippers were the superior team in the half, they were unable to create any distance from the Celtics, thanks to a gritty defensive effort and some much-needed buckets from the Boston bench. The Celtics’ second unit nearly tied the starters in the half, scoring 20 points to the starters’ 22, and Enes Kanter led all Boston scorers with eight points. The Celtics, remarkably, would enter the half leading by two, 42-40.
For the third straight game, the Celtics enjoyed a particularly impactful performance from Theis. The 27-year-old center was a hurricane on both ends of the floor for the night, contributing in every facet of the game with 8 points, 14 rebounds, 6 assists and 3 steals. It seemed like he put himself in the way of every Los Angeles pick-and-roll in the game, and played a substantial role in slowing down their offensive attack.
At the start of the second half, the Clippers started to assert their will on the Boston defense. Both Leonard and George appeared to heat up in a hurry, scoring LA’s first 11 points of the third quarter. As has become custom, though, the Boston offense came out of the break looking like a different unit. Both Smart and Tatum started to find the net, hitting a trio of three-pointers between the two of them, and the Celtics kept pace with the Clippers’ surge. Tatum would drill four triples in the quarter, pushing to a game-high 21 points, and the Celtics would enter the fourth quarter leading by six, 75-69.
In the early minutes of the fourth quarter, they didn’t let off the gas. After a few minutes of standstill play, Walker would return to the game and immediately connect on just his second three-pointer of the night, pushing the Boston lead to eight with just over eight minutes left in regulation.
Shortly thereafter, the game was heavily derailed by the referees. Coming out of a timeout, a lengthy meeting occurred at the scorer’s table that dragged on for several minutes, appearing to end with a personal foul being removed from Theis. Moments later, the game was stopped again, this time for a video review on a foul against Walker that was ruled a common foul, rather than a clear path foul. Walker would then hit another three-pointer, pushing the Boston lead to 10, and the Clippers would call a timeout, stopping play once again.
As play mercifully resumed and the clock ticked under six minutes to play, the Clippers finally started to find the momentum everyone seemed to have been anticipating. They forced a couple Boston turnovers with stingy defense, and quickly cut the lead back down to just two points on a Lou Williams three-pointer with 4:39 remaining. After a Brad Stevens timeout, the Celtics would quickly respond — Smart connected on a layup and then found Brown for a massive dunk to restore a six-point advantage.
The Clippers promptly counter-punched, as Leonard slammed down an enormous dunk over Theis and Beverley connected on a corner three to close back within two points. Their defense tightened its grasp on the Boston offense, forcing a few tough misses, and a three-pointer from Williams put them ahead by one with 30 seconds to play. The lead would stretch to three shortly thereafter on a pair of Williams free throws with 20 seconds remaining.
On the ensuing possession, Tatum came up huge. After having not attempted a shot for the entire fourth quarter, he received the ball off an ATO and juked George to the floor, drilling a pull-up three to tie the game with 13 seconds remaining. Leonard’s three-pointer as time expired did not connect, and the teams headed to overtime tied at 97.
Los Angeles came out strong to open the extra frame, canning a pair of three-pointers and a technical free throw to start the period on a 7-2 run. Then, it was Boston’s turn — a free throw of their own followed by a Tatum layup would cut the lead to two. With 1:57 to play, a brief rugby scrum would break out, with both teams diving all over the floor pursuing a series of loose balls, before a kicked ball call against the Clippers would restore possession to Boston. After Tatum’s corner three went long, another video review ensued to determine which team last touched the ball before it went out of bounds. It was ruled out off of Williams, and the Celtics would retain possession.
Both teams would trade misses over their next few possessions, but Montrezl Harrell would find Beverley open in the corner with 43 seconds left to play, taking a 107-102 advantage. After another brief video review courtesy of Beverley, Tatum would dunk off an excellent ATO to pull back within three with 34 seconds remaining. On the subsequent possession, Smart would swipe a pass intended for Leonard and bounce the ball off Leonard’s leg as he fell out of bounds, giving the Celtics the ball with 18 seconds remaining.
Unfortunately, the Celtics would come up empty twice on their final possession on three-point misses from Tatum and Walker, and the Clippers would escape with the win. Next up, the Celtics head to Denver for their final game of the West Coast trip, battling the Nuggets at 9 PM EST on NBC Sports Boston.