At the end of a draining six-week stretch in which the Boston Celtics didn’t have more than a day off in-between games, Thursday night's final tune-up before the All-Star break versus the Los Angeles Clippers offered to be a get-away game.
Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum could have had their minds in Chicago, especially the 21-year-old Tatum, set to make his first All-Star appearance this weekend. Their teammates could have had their plane tickets for a tropical destination ready to go, ready to escape the New England cold and the strenuous workload they have faced over the first half of the season.
But these Celtics, they don’t give in. And the result?
A statement 141-133 double overtime win against a clear NBA title contender in the Clippers as the Celtics’ defining traits shone through, revealing what they truly are behind all the influx of talent they possess.
“This team’s got good fight, it’s got good toughness, and that’s been really fun,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens as Boston enters the break having won 11 of its last 13 games.
Two times, once at the end of regulation and again at the conclusion of the first overtime, the Celtics missed an opportunity to end the contest sooner with a game-winning shot, but both attempts went awry.
That could have derailed the Celtics, those missed shots being their could-have, should-have moments, unable to close out the Clippers on their home floor when they had the chance. But Boston kept playing, kept fighting, kept clawing and scratching. Their grittiness and heart on display. Not ready for that tempting vacation to start with an agonizing defeat.
The Celtics trailed by as many as four points midway through the first overtime, but with their perseverance and the phenomenal play of Tatum, battled back until they overtook the Clippers and came out on top after 58 grueling minutes.
“Everyone’s out there tired and just got to find a way to win and we did that,” Walker said. “We just stay together, which is key, especially when they hit big shots like they did. That can just be heartbreaking. But we didn’t put our heads down. We didn’t give up. We stayed tough, stayed together and made the plays necessary to win this game.”
It was certainly Tatum’s night, pouring in 39 points, as he leaps stratospheres and situates himself as a star in the NBA. But to say that Tatum carried the Celtics, who were playing without Jaylen Brown, alone to victory would be flat out false.
Marcus Smart netted 31 points and had his moments, some that left you scratching your head as he forced up errant shots, other times commending his play because there’s no one quite like Smart. Smart combined the two in the second overtime, forcing a long, bad pass to Tatum, but Smart’s trademark hustle won out after Kawhi Leonard tried to save the ball from going out of bounds. Smart was right there to collect the loose ball and put in a layup, giving the Celtics the lead for good in typical Smart fashion.
Gordon Hayward had a dreadful 6-for-21 shooting performance, but delivered in the clutch when called upon. Hayward scored the C’s final seven points of the game, canning a big 3-pointer before coming up with two even more important defensive plays. Hayward somehow blocked a driving layup attempt from Lou Williams, who had his way on the offensive end as he finished with 35 points, with under a minute to go that would have made it a one possession game. Hayward then put an exclamation point on the victory by stealing an in-bound pass in the waning seconds.
Along with Hayward and Smart, Walker came through by knocking down an ankle-breaking, step-back 3-pointer to start the second extra frame and even though Grant Williams got posterized by Montrezl Harrell, the rookie showed composure in the intense situations he found himself in.
“I say it all the time — we’re a team that just doesn’t make excuses,” Tatum said. “We just plug the next guy in and everybody’s got to be ready to do their job when you're out there and you get the opportunity.”
The C’s pulse-pounding win over the Clippers was just another example of what it will take for them to reach a level they haven’t been able to get to since 2008.
It will take more than skill, more than Tatum having a sensational performance on both ends of the floor.
The Celtics will have to reach down deep and fight, like they have proven they can do throughout this season. They did it in a mid-February game before the team goes its seperate ways for nearly a week to enjoy the time off during the All-Star break.
But this team won’t be judge ultimately on this win. The true test comes in the spring and then as the calendar shifts toward June, and if the team’s heart is still pumping, still thriving on the NBA’s biggest stage.
“If you want to beat a good team, you have to beat other good teams,” Stevens said. “And if you want to be a champion, you have to beat them four times in two weeks.”