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Tacko Fall energizes 116-107 Celtics win over the Wizards

Tacko Fall flushed back a crucial put back in the fourth quarter and held down the paint with the Celtics front court depleted by COVID-19. Payton Pritchard and Jaylen Brown followed with game-saving threes that halted a 28-point Wizards comeback attempt that reached within four.

NBA: Washington Wizards at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. Paul Pierce lining up Dirk Nowitski. Steve Nash and Jason Kidd facing off at the point. Jayson Tatum and Bradley Beal’s battles may go down in the same breath as those legendary battles. As Tatum and Beal ascend to All NBA form — their first matchup of 2021 immediately felt important when the two sized each other up on defense.

Tatum stripped Beal for an early basket, one of two Celtics breakout baskets with two more into fouls of the first quarter. Beal later landed an aggressive blocked that planted Tatum’s behind in the green paint below as Beal raced to a left-handed layup on the other end. They matched each other’s first 14 points in the first quarter.

Beal reached 41 points and Tatum 32 by the end of the night in a 116-107 Celtics win. Their duel defined the first half. Fitting for this early, undermanned Boston season — Payton Pritchard and Tacko Fall cut off a 28-point Wizards comeback with a long three and put back dunk as the stories of the night emerged off Boston’s bench.

Fall, playing minutes that could dictate whether or not he embarks on an impactful NBA career, he blocked an escalating Russell Westbrook in his first minutes on the floor, stuffing two more shots before his playing time hit seven minutes. He flushed an alley-oop from Jaylen Brown, then raced down Robin Lopez in several strides to whack the layup attempt at the rim.

Washington left the ball loose and ready to be swiped, with Boston piling up seven steals and landing five blocks in the first half. Tatum read passing lanes with Tacko sealing the paint for 10 minutes where the Celtics outscored the Wizards by 15 points.

Fall’s minutes opened up thanks to a reported positive COVID-19 test from Robert Williams III that’ll land him out for the foreseeable future. Grant Williams and Tristan Thompson entered NBA protocol for their proximity to Williams on the bench, with Brad Stevens expecting them to miss several games — four scheduled for their quarantine period.

That means extra minutes for Daniel Theis, who survived two early fouls until halftime to score nine points on 4-for-5 shooting in his return to center. Tatum hit him for his final make in the second with a cool post-up of Beal after Theis set a pick and rolled. Tatum waited, waited, spun past Beal to draw Thomas Bryant up off Theis — then Tatum darted a pass to the left of his head for two and a foul. Theis air-balled the free throw, shaking his head on his way back to defense.

Jaylen Brown also flashed his facilitating prowess with a second straight five assist game and fourth in a row with at least three. He recorded his second straight double-double as the Celtics’ drive-and-kick game found Semi Ojeleye for two straight threes to begin the third and built a lead as large as 28.

That shrunk with 12 flicks of Beal’s wrists in the frame. He pulled-up, first on back-to-back catches behind the arc, then he got into the lane for a mid-ranger, drilled a three above the arc to pull the lead back to 19 in eight minutes. Pritchard hit a run-halting three from Brown, but the run continued. Beal nailed six free throws, found two teammates and hit two more shots to reach 37 points through the end of the third — drilling 7-of-12 in the frame and producing 21 of Washington’s 35.

Noted Celtics killer Ish Smith checked in to begin the fourth quarter and pushed a 7-2 run that dwindled Boston’s lead further to 99-92. Russell Westbrook — struggling to a 3-for-13 — darted in transition to find Rui Hachimura for three. Tacko bricked two straight free throws.

Pritchard led the offense with Tacko clogging the middle, Brown and Smart spread wide and nobody moving as Boston’s offense continued to stagnate with Tatum off the floor. Pritchard let it fly with the shot clock dwindling and swished it through.

Washington’s offense stagnated too with Beal on the bench. He returned with under six minutes remaining and raced toward Brown, tied up on the floor, hitting Brown in the head with his knee. Brown, initially dazed, stayed in the game and won the jump ball against Mo Wagner. Beal vs. Tatum long-forgotten, Tacko Fall secured a pivotal offensive rebound, tipping the ball 10 feet above the ground, securing it and flushing a dunk home for an 11 point lead.

Smart’s dish to Brown in transition with two minutes remaining slammed the door, only Boston’s fourth make in 18 tries to that point in the quarter, as Boston’s defense with more positive Tacko paint-clogging minutes quieted Washington’s run.

The Wizards fell to 2-7, the Celtics 7-3 through their 10 game Kemba Walker-less stretch, with his return in sight and a rematch with the Miami Heat ahead on Sunday.

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