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Hot starts from stars propel shorthanded Celtics to victory over Wizards

Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown combined for 59 points, Tacko Fall gave key minutes and the Celtics survived a second-half comeback attempt.

Washington Wizards v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

It’s nice to have the two best players on the floor.

While it was close down the stretch, the Boston Celtics took home a decisive victory thanks to the tandem of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown Friday night. As the early season Celtics have won seven of their first ten games, very few have been pretty throughout, and this is the second time in the last three games where the team has nearly relinquished a large lead.

Boston led by 19 at the intermission, spurred by 19 points from Tatum on 8-for-12 shooting. Brown had 18 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists in the opening frame. Both combined for 58 points on the evening, and by the game’s end, became the third pair of teammates to each record 250 points or more through the first ten games of the season since 2000. Their superb performances were indicative of just how much the Celtics cannot afford for either to have an off night.

That was especially true against the Washington Wizards, a potent offensive group with the ability to catch fire from deep. Bradley Beal, who led all scorers Friday with 41 points, is leading the NBA in points per game this year. Watching him trade buckets with Tatum and Brown was a joy, though it could have easily been close had the Celtics duo not been blazing hot early.

The level of difficulty of Tatum and Brown’s first half makes is insane. These are two guys who score in isolation with ease, over good defense and long defenders. Both look like All-Stars early on.

Tatum hit some really difficult shots early on:

Brown wasn’t far behind with the tough twos:

What I love about both is how unselfish they are and the level they read the game at. Both understand their role is to let the play come to them and zip it around to whoever is open. Even with a depleted supporting cast, Tatum and Brown were willing passers and used their scoring prowess to get others open.

Both made several awesome reads in the first half:

The Wizards defense has its fair share of struggles, especially in the pick-and-roll. The Celtics don’t have a dynamic, quick point guard who can exploit that regularly, at least while Kemba Walker is out. It was much more of an attack tailored to Boston’s strengths as much as Washington’s weaknesses.

There was good reason for the C’s to be self-focused in this game in particular. Depth was the major worry coming into the game, thanks to the COVID-related absences of Tristan Thompson, Robert Williams and Grant Williams. Brad Stevens believed in his group of reserves to contribute, speaking postgame of the “next play” mentality.

“Our job’s not to make excuses for who’s not here,” said Stevens. “It’s to play as well as we can with who is and let the results take care of themselves.”

The first test for the non-rotation guys came in the first quarter when starting center Daniel Theis picked up his second foul. Without much front court depth to rely on, in came Tacko Fall, playing his first extended and meaningful minutes of the season. Fall was sturdy given expectations and did all that he was supposed to. He blocked or altered shots at the rim, finished at the other end and either screened or stood along the baseline.

While a swat on Russell Westbrook was impressive, the most impactful sequence of his came in transition:

Of course, there’s a reason Tacko hasn’t been a regular in the rotation. We saw that on display on Friday. He picked up four fouls in only 19 minutes, his man got regular second-chance opportunities when he’d challenge a shot and there were instances of lack of awareness on offense. You can see Fall forgot what he was supposed to do on one play, then signal over to the coaching staff afterward to say “my bad.”

Still, the first half was overwhelmingly more positive than not. The lead got up to as large as 28 early in the third before the C’s went cold and the Wizards began to play inspired defense. They pressured on the perimeter, clogged the lane to prevent mismatches and got the Celtics to take the bait of the extra pass game. In the final six minutes of the quarter, Washington badly outplayed Boston, outscoring them 23-15. Beal had 14 for Washington in that span.

To close the third quarter and begin the fourth, Boston had seven turnovers in a ten-minute span. The lack of ball control and poise helped the Wizards chip away at the lead, getting it all the way down to 99-95 with 7:36 left. There was a stretch of helter-skelter basketball that resembled a fatigued stretch of pickup at the local YMCA. It was sloppy play from a lot of role players, even veterans, and showed the fragility of Boston’s bench to control tempo.

Washington capitalized, turning defense to transition offense frequently, getting easy looks at the rim before Boston could get back. Poor decisions on offense led to jailbreak opportunities like this:

In the end, the Celtics got enough stops to shut the comeback down before it got any closer. Their defensive intensity picked up after a timeout following the lead being narrowed to four. Stevens rolled with Jaylen, Marcus Smart and a group of youngsters out of the timeout, allowing Tatum to rest down the stretch and refusing to bail out the poor play of the second unit.

The decision paid off, capped by a massive staredown three hit by Payton Pritchard to extend the lead to seven:

Say what you will about Stevens’ rotations, but his ability to give Tatum rest while stopping the comeback proved to be the ultimate closer for his team. The Wizards couldn’t do the same with their star in Bradley Beal; he faded down the stretch and left a few key shots short. While the second half was spoiled by many close moments and sloppy play, the Celtics still did enough to secure a fairly convincing victory.

Ultimately, Friday night was a reminder of just how good Tatum and Brown are. It also brings to the forefront how well those guys have to play in order to lead the Celtics to victory. There were positive performances from bench guys like Fall and Pritchard, and much-needed plays from Smart to close the night out.

Relying on superstars to play like superstars in order to win always makes you hold your breath. As an old coach of mine used to say, “never apologize for a result.” A win is a win, no matter how sustainable it may seem.

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