The final sequence of the Celtics’ thrilling 115-114 Game 1 win over the Nets on Sunday was a basketball fan’s utopia.
There were no timeouts. No replays. No free throws. No off-balance, contested 3’s. No selfish plays. Instead, defensive togetherness, extra passes and killer instincts reigned supreme.
What the Celtics did in the final 30 seconds – getting a crucial stop and connecting beautifully to set up a Jayson Tatum buzzer-beating layup – was nothing short of brilliant. It was also a microcosm of how well this team has meshed together, as every player embraced their role and did their part. The last sequence showed how far the Celtics have come, both individually and collectively.
It started with Marcus Smart, who played sensational lockdown defense on Kyrie Irving. There’s no place in the world that Smart would rather be, and he got in Irving’s face and made him as uncomfortable as a player with such elite skill can be. Smart, who has always embraced a challenge, has ascended to yet another level in that regard this year. After a year of being left off the All-Defense team, he came up with one of the biggest stops of his career and a signature play for his Defensive Player of the Year campaign.
Al Horford, who has a pulse for providing exactly what this team needs, made the wise decision to leave his man and double the red-hot Irving. Irving probed, and tried to find an angle to fire away, but Horford and Smart made it nearly impossible to do so. Irving is insanely talented, but he simply had nowhere to go and no options. The 35-year-old has always been a savvy vet, but he’s taken it to another level lately and has been the definition of consistent.
Fortunately for Irving, he had good friend Kevin Durant nearby. When Durant got the ball, it set up a movie-like scene where the protagonist finally gets a crack at the villain. Tatum, who has blossomed into an elite defender, stayed with Durant and contested the shot while avoiding a game-ruining foul. The true greats do it on both ends, and Tatum has bought into that concept more than ever.
Horford then made the fundamentally sound play to secure the rebound and find Derrick White. White understood it was in his best interest not to do anything extreme or hasty, and he quickly and correctly got the ball into Jaylen Brown’s hands. While White hasn’t been a steady shooter or scorer for the Celtics, he’s had a knack for blending in and setting his teammates up for success. Sometimes less is more, and he’s embodied that mindset.
best defensive possession of the season pic.twitter.com/airONgf6Qs— Rob Perez (@WorldWideWob) April 17, 2022
Head coach Ime Udoka made the correct decision by electing not to call timeout, and Brown – one of the most talented transition threats in the NBA – took off on a mission. Rather than forcing a tough shot over multiple defenders, he made the simple and mature play of dishing the ball to Smart.
Brown has taken the next step this season as a playmaker, and this was the moment where all the work he’s put in came to fruition. There’s a reason Udoka met with Brown and praised him afterward. This was a huge step in his personal growth, as he showcased an improved ability to pursue the perfect team option rather than a decent one.
He set up a perfect “No! No! No! YESSSS!!!!” moment for Smart, and everyone in the building – including Tatum – thought he was about to hoist one. Smart has pieced together arguably the best season of his career in his first season as the team’s starting point guard, and that’s far from a coincidence. His shot selection has been better than ever, and he’s left zero doubt about whether his current role suits him best. If Smart had been open, he would have undoubtedly let it fly, but he knew there was a better option with two defenders flying by him. Smart craftily snuck between them and kept his eyes up.
@jaytatum0 AT THE BUZZER pic.twitter.com/hLY0SMusm6— Boston Celtics (@celtics) April 17, 2022
Tatum didn’t stay on the perimeter and hoist up the ol’ deep 3 when down 1. Instead, he caught Durant napping, accelerated to the basket, caught the pass, spun, went up strong and poetically finished around Irving in one fluid motion. He didn’t wait for contact, didn’t lose the ball and didn’t try to do anything flashy. As Tatum continues to rise up the ranks among the NBA’s elite, his first career buzzer-beater was a perfect stepping stone. He’s no longer a rising superstar. He’s a superstar. Period.
This was a moment that encapsulated more than just the Celtics’ Game 1 togetherness. It epitomized exactly what this team has been about over the past few months. White knows his role, Horford is the glue, Smart makes winning plays, Brown is maturing every game and Tatum has developed a true killer instinct.
No one tried to do too much. Everyone did exactly what they were supposed to, and it delivered arguably the most scintillating moment of the NBA season to date.