It was pretty turned ugly. Guaranteed to up in the air. A level of assurance that quickly developed into utter panic. Nevertheless, the Boston Celtics survived a furious comeback by the Blazers to win 128-124 for their first bubble victory.
Jayson Tatum’s Friday night struggles were all the topic of conversation heading into Sunday’s afternoon showcase. The Milwaukee loss was just the seventh time he shot below 30.0 percent on the season. The other six saw him bounce back with 26.0 points per game on 52.1 percent shooting from the field and 40.9 from beyond the arc.
That trend continued through the first half against the Blazers, where Tatum led an explosive Celtics offense with 21 on 7-of-12 shooting. His 4-of-6 mark on threes was the headliner for a team that shot 11-of-18 from downtown in the opening 24 minutes, building a lead as high as 24 while heading into halftime up 19.
Portland was expected to play to their size advantage in the form of Jusuf Nurkic and did so throughout the first half. Nurkic scored a team-high six points in the opening frame and paced the Blazers with 15 at halftime.
That the Celtics built the lead they did speaks volumes to the aerial assault unleashed but also Brad Stevens’ decision to counter Nurkic with the man who replaced him during Portland’s run to the Western Conference Finals last season.
Enes Kanter played some of his best basketball in green across 12 first-half minutes, with 10 points, five rebounds and two assists. It was no surprise that he was a team-high plus-16 in the first half, minimizing a strength the Blazers likely expected to work in their favor.
Boston seemed on its way to a much-needed turnaround following the close loss to Milwaukee, but a team with a top-10 offense and as explosive a backcourt as Portland’s should never be counted out. The Celtics did, and it almost cost them the win.
After scoring a noiseless eight points in 20 minutes of first-half action, Damian Lillard led a third-quarter surge with 11 points, including a four-point play that brought the deficit to within single digits.
One of the game’s most explosive scorers refused to let up in the final frame, putting in another 11 points with three triples to briefly give Portland a lead they hadn’t seen since early in the first. Lillard also finished with a career-high-tying 16 assists.
Another explanation for Portland’s surge was Gary Trent Jr. The sophomore guard surpassed his career highs for 3-pointers made and attempted, going 7-of-11 from downtown with 21 points.
Tatum quieted down just a bit in the final 12 minutes with eight points, but the cool-down did little to slow Boston’s chances, even as the Blazers continued to push back. In his place stepped Jaylen Brown, never one to seek the spotlight but, as he has all season, always one to step in once called upon.
Brown was a perfect 4-of-4 on 3-pointers in the fourth quarter. In order, those shots tied the game at 101 early in the frame, put Boston up one just past the halfway mark, broke a 109 tie nearly a minute later, and sealed a victory in the final minute. He finished the quarter with 16 of his 30 points.
Kemba Walker made it back-to-back encouraging performances even amid a minutes restriction. After playing just over 19 minutes against Milwaukee on Friday, Walker saw 22 against the Blazers. Though he didn’t see any fourth quarter minutes, he remains on track to return to his All-Star self, having put in 14 points on 5-of-6 shooting.
Fighting for their playoff lives, Portland was a far more desperate bunch compared to a Celtics team that is sitting comfortably in the third spot in the Eastern Conference.
And yet, Miami is only 2.5 games behind Boston in the standings. Fitting then that the two are set to face off on Tuesday in a game the Celtics will need to maintain that distance and continue judiciously building towards the postseason.