What initially had the look of a truly embarrassingly defeat for the Boston Celtics turned into one of the most incredible games of the 2020-2021 NBA season, an overtime thriller that saw the Boston topple the San Antonio Spurs, 143-140. After trailing by as many as 32 points in the second quarter, the Celtics launched into one of the most impressive comebacks the franchise has ever seen, battling back behind a colossal 42-point third quarter to help force an improbable overtime period.
It cannot be overstated — Jayson Tatum was simply transcendent in this game, recording unquestionably the most remarkable game of his young career with a career-high 60 points. When the Celtics struggled through a brutal first half, he functioned as essentially their entire offense, and when they rallied in the second half, he was the one making the pivotal plays. Tatum was the best player to step on the court for his 45 minutes this evening, and he provided a massive rebuttal to recent questions about his “leadership” during Boston’s difficult season.
DeMar DeRozan led the way for the Spurs with a 30-point performance derived largely at the free throw line (7-of-21 from the field, 16-of-19 at the line). Dejounte Murray added 24 points after a nuclear first half that saw him connect on his first nine consecutive field goals, and Lonnie Walker IV added 24 of his own off the bench. But San Antonio’s efforts were for naught, thanks to Tatum’s incredible performance, some clutch buckets from Jaylen Brown (17 points, 5-of-24 shooting) and an energized game from rookie Aaron Nesmith (16 points, 7-of-9 shooting).
As has become customary this season, the Celtics opened the game on a poor note. The offense looked sluggish and disjointed, with lots of jumpers hitting the front rim and whiffing on shots that are normally their bread-and-butter (including a pair of missed free throws by Brown). Tatum scored the Celtics’ first 12 points of the game, but the rest of the entire roster failed to record a point until Tristan Thompson scored a second chance dunk with a minute left to play in the quarter. The Spurs, meanwhile, played fast and decisive, blowing the Celtics away in both execution and effort and rapidly piling up a lead as high as 23 points. Boston limped into the second quarter trailing 39-16.
If Boston was going to find something in the second quarter, it wasn’t evident early on. In a play that would be emblematic of the Celtics’ first half as a whole, Tremont Waters (seeing minutes due to Kemba Walker’s continued absence), stepped under a Rudy Gay jumper and picked up a well-earned Flagrant 1 foul. The status quo didn’t change much from there; Tatum continued to score and the Celtics found a little more of an offensive rhythm, but the Spurs still managed to stretch their lead near 30 points. San Antonio would enter halftime enjoying a comfortable 77-48 advantage.
Defense remained largely absent in the third quarter, but the Boston offense finally started to make some inroads against the San Antonio advantage. Progress was slow, but after a fastbreak layup by Evan Fournier with five minutes remaining in the quarter, the Celtics cut the lead under the 20 point mark for the first time since the score was 30-12 in the first quarter. From there, they caught fire, stifling the Spurs’ offense and scoring at will across the final three minutes of the quarter. What looked like a brutal blowout loss transformed into a looming comeback, as their 42-point third quarter performance cut the lead down to just 13 entering the final frame, 103-90.
Boston’s newfound energy carried over into the final quarter, led by Tatum, who converted a four-point play to cut San Antonio’s lead to 10 with as many minutes remaining in regulation. Moments later, he further cut the lead into single digits, after drawing a shooting foul on Spurs rookie Devin Vassell. The Celtics continued to click on all cylinders, until who else but Jayson Tatum slammed home a dunk and then connected on a step back three-pointer to bring the Celtics within a single point.
With just over five minutes to play, the Celtics completed the comeback as a Marcus Smart three-pointer tied up the game and reset the playing field at 116 points apiece. After tying the game up, though, pulling into the lead proved to be a harder task. The two teams traded punches for the next several minutes, juggling back and forth between a two-point San Antonio lead and a tie game.
With under a minute remaining to play, the Celtics finally pulled ahead, as Tatum connected on a massive three-pointer to earn them their first lead since the score was just 5-4 in the opening minutes of the game. The Spurs brought the ball up the court and started into their offense, but Jaylen Brown disrupted DeRozan on the block and forced a turnover that was confirmed as Boston’s ball upon video review. Tatum split a pair of free throws with 18 seconds to play, then DeRozan tied the game back up with a pair of his own with 10 seconds remaining on the clock. Tatum got a clean look at a fadeaway two-pointer as time expired, but couldn’t connect, and the game went to overtime.
The Celtics struck first in the five-minute overtime period on a savvy offensive put-back by Nesmith, but it wasn’t long before DeRozan answered with one of his trademark pull-up two-point jumpers. Tied at 130, Brown coughed up a turnover, and a goaltend by Nesmith gave the Spurs a two-point edge, before Tatum again evened up the game with a pair of free throws. After an and-one by DeRozan, the lead began to see-saw, with the two teams trading a one-point lead back and forth as the clock began to dwindle.
With 31 seconds remaining in the period, the Celtics ran an ATO lob to Robert Williams for a potentially alley-oop. Williams didn’t connect, but a foul was called on the court, which prompted a challenge by Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. It was clearly a clean play on the part of the Spurs’ defense, and the play was overturned after video review. After the Celtics won the ensuing jump ball, Brown overcame a brutal shooting performance (5-of-24 on the evening) to connect on a clutch corner three to put the Celtics ahead by two with 16 seconds to play.
On the ensuing play, the Spurs finally made a misstep. Coming out of the timeout, their inbounds pass was errant, ending up in the hands of Marcus Smart, and they wasted several seconds before finally making the necessary foul on Tatum. Tatum connected on both free throws to put the Celtics ahead by four (their largest lead of the game), but Patty Mills nailed a three from the wing with five seconds left to keep the game alive. The Celtics found Tatum on the ensuing inbounds, and after San Antonio intentionally fouled, he connected on both free throws. The Spurs couldn’t get a shot off before the clock expired, and the Celtics finally secured the incredible victory.
Next up, the Celtics will host the Western Conference playoff hopeful Portland Trail Blazers this Sunday at 7:30 PM on NBA TV.