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Aaron Nesmith shines as Celtics outplay Hornets in rubber match, 120-111

A Tommy Award has never been so easy to give out.

Charlotte Hornets v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The lede writes itself: It was a rubber match. The Charlotte Hornets wanted to further improve the likelihood that they’ll at least secure a spot in the 7-versus-8 game of the play-in tournament, while the Boston Celtics should want to avoid it altogether. Both teams lost last night, though Boston’s loss was undoubtedly much more pathetic. The early-2000’s movie trailer version of this game would boast a tagline that reads “Two teams enter. One team leaves less middling than before. The Celtics, having sent out a healthy-ish roster — sans Kemba Walker and Marcus Smart, for dumber reasons — leave tonight the less-middling team, winning 120-111. How they got there isn’t necessarily pretty, even though their performance in the first quarter could’ve won a beauty pageant.

When two teams on the back end a back-to-back play, you almost expect the basketball to be ugly. Not so to start things off for the home team, though in a way, the Celtics did take last night off. By the first timeout, the Celtics had made six of their first 12 field goals, only one of which came from three. With Jayson Tatum back after a one-game absence and thus reunited with his swingman playmaking partner, Jaylen Brown, the duo combined for 13 of Boston’s first 19 points, and halfway through the first, they led by six.

That would balloon within moments. They’d jump even further ahead, 26-15, as Jaylen Brown continued to pace the group, making great — to say “good” would be a disservice to his showing in the first quarter — on his “sense of urgency” please from yesterday’s presser. By the end of the quarter, Brown had 20 on eight-of-11 shooting, having scored 11 of his team's final 13 points in the quarter. Boston led, 39-19.

Yes, Brown scored more than the entire Hornets team through 12 minutes.

To talk about the first quarter without noting that Tremont Waters 1) started his first game of the season and 2) held his own as a capable floor general just feels wrong, so consider this the Tremont paragraph. He only tallied four points and two assists, but his first bucket came on a drive past/finish over the much taller PJ Washington, and his second after a couple shimmies in the post. We don’t overreact here at CelticsBlog, but it might be time to offer him the max. After consulting numerous experts, we've determined that this is rational.

The second quarter didn’t start with near the level of gusto that Boston brought to the first, but that’s not to say that the drop-off was egregious in the slightest. The Celtics continued to shoot with a refreshing level of confidence — Payton Pritchard drained a spot-up three just before the quarter’s midway point — and Tristan Thompson cut, battled for offensive rebounds, and lept to contest drivers with a purpose he’d lacked in recent games. Tonight’s early Aaron Nesmith sighting even resulted in two scrappy fouls, an open triple, and a driving finish that looked Donovan Mitchell-esque. Heck, effort is effort. You love to see it!

With 3:19 to go, the Celtics led by 18, and for the remainder of the first half, continued to pace. Close to the end of the second quarter, Rob Williams chased down Devonte Graham for a block that would’ve sent a packed TD Garden into a full-on tizzy. While the lead was trimmed ever-so-slightly, Boston still led by double-digits at the half, 58-47; Brown (20) and Tatum (15) led the way in scoring, while Thompson led all players with eight rebounds.

If you’re dying to pinpoint a difference, might I direct you to the second door on your right? That’s the energy department, and it’s obvious the Celtics paid them a visit. After last night’s debacle against the Thunder and Jaylen Brown’s impassioned, yet exasperated comments following Boston’s third-straight loss, anything less would have been unacceptable. Tonight, their legs looked fresh; the shots appeared cleaner. The Celtics did what they absolutely had to do: they rebounded (both literally and metaphorically).

Then the second half began, and that 11-point cushion was suddenly far less soft. Overall, Charlotte outscored the Celtics by just three in the third, but couple that with their nine-point edge in the second, and you find a Boston lead that was once 20 cut in more than half. Devonte Graham played the biggest possible role in that collective comeback, scoring 18 of his 25 total points in the third quarter.

But between a solid stretch of plays from the supporting cast — Nesmith had a nice putback towards the end of the quarter; lobs to Timelord had been missed during the last seven games, and Tatum tossed him one of those — along with continued production from Tatum and Brown kept the Celtics ahead, leading 88-80 after three.

Into the fourth, the story continued to be written in the Hornets favor, as they continued to inch their way back from the dead by facilitating and creating open shots for their strongest offensive options. This team isn’t just far from a slouch in terms of distributing the ball: they lead the league in points created off of assists per game (70.4) and third in total completed passes per game (304.9). Charlotte passes the ball around the perimeter with a fervor unlike many teams in the league, and they’ve maintained those rates even without LaMelo Ball, arguably their best passer. Thanks to their penchant for finding the best shot, Terry Rozier began to heat up much like Graham did in the third, while Tatum and Brown appeared to be the Celtics' lone two scoring threats down the stretch.

But appearances can be deceiving. This team, apparently, has a third All-Star. His name?

Aaron Nesmith, obviously. Who else?

Midway through the fourth, Nesmith’s stat line read as follows: 11 points, seven rebounds — three of them offensive — and three blocks. It’s not necessarily the kind of performance you’ll see highlighted on SportsCenter, but it’s the exact kind of performance that should elate Celtics fans. Nesmith has spent the entire season desperately searching for his fit, and, you know, extended playing time; he got both tonight and made good on the opportunity, finishing with 15 points, nine rebounds, three blocks, and three steals. Give that man a Tommy award.

Boston pushed the lead back to eight with four minutes left in the quarter, and though the Hornets got within three at one point, the Celtics did what they couldn’t do late last night and responded, trip after trip. With help from a lucky bounce, Jayson Tatum hit a three to put Boston back up by 11. Devonte Graham missed two free throws on the ensuing possession, followed up by Terry Rozier failing to connect on two-straight gimme floaters. The Celtics failed to score and further increase the lead they regained, but a crucial steal by Aaron Nesmith with 2:27 left led to Jayson Tatum getting fouled and sinking both free throws. Graham missed a triple just seconds later, and Boston started a fast break.

Guess who was ahead of the pack for a dunk?

Henceforth known as the “Aaron Nesmith Game,” the Celtics made up for last night’s loss the only forgivable way. They played hard and with heart, led in scoring by Tatum and Brown (who combined for 73 in the win), but in energy by Nesmith. Charlotte’s biggest lead was one. Technically, this win wasn’t wire-to-wire, but we don’t get technical here at CelticsBlog. We just want to have fun.

Thanks in large part to Aaron Nesmith, fans have an excuse to do the same. The Celtics are back in action on Friday against San Antonio, where they’ll look to improve to 34-30 and claw their way out of sixth-place in the East.

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