The Boston Celtics’ home win streak has faced some intense challenges in recent weeks, and perhaps none have been closer than Wednesday night’s showdown with the Western Conference-leading Minnesota Timberwolves. Down nine points with just four minutes to play, the Celtics’ rattled off a 14-3 run and found themselves in overtime, where Jayson Tatum took over and secured the 127-120 win. The Celtics are now 18-0 at TD Garden this season.
Both teams lacked their typical starting centers tonight, as Kristaps Porzingis took his typical rest night on the first night of the back-to-back for the Celtics and Rudy Gobert — a game-time decision — was ultimately ruled out for the Timberwolves, along with point guard Mike Conley. The Celtics’ depth looked to be further tested when foul-trouble reared its head early, as Holiday was whistled for his second personal foul just over three minutes into the game on a post-up by Towns.
Jayson Tatum led the way for the Celtics behind a masterful scoring explosion in the fourth quarter and overtime, compiling 45 points in all. Jaylen Brown was right behind him with 35 of his own, and the duo almost singlehandedly compensated for a supporting cast that couldn’t find much scoring traction — among the rest of the rotation, only Jrue Holiday managed to score double-digits, and he did so on 5-of-15 shooting. For the Wolves, Anthony Edwards scored 29 points and Karl-Anthony Towns added 25, but their offense dried up when it counted.
Brown built on his 40-point performance against Pacers with 51 more in the first quarter tonight. The Celtics took advantage of Gobert’s absence in the paint, and their offense seemed comfortable and aggressive, finding holes that likely would not have been there with the 7-foot-1 center on the court. They shot 50% from the field and 46% from three-point range early, but a balanced effort from the shorthanded Wolves held Boston short of a double-digit lead. The Celtics entered the second quarter ahead by five, 32-27.
Perhaps nobody benefitted more from Gobert’s absence than Luke Kornet, who was a surprise third-leading scorer for the Celtics in the first half and tagged on an impressive block on Minnesota backup center Naz Reid for good measure. It was a continuation of an impressive stretch of play from the 28-year-old seven-footer, who might be playing his way into a nice raise as an unrestricted free agent this offseason.
Minnesota’s defense asserted itself after the break. After allowing the Celtics to crack the 30-point threshold, they held Boston to just 22 in the second. Brown cooled from his hot start with just a single field goal in the second, a two-point jumper, while Tatum, Horford and White struggled to find their shooting strokes (4-of-16 from the field). Edwards found himself a bit of a groove, including a slick mid-range jumper off the glass, and the Timberwolves narrowed the Boston lead down to just one heading into halftime, 54-53.
With the Timberwolves firmly back into the proceedings, the third quarter became a razor-wire affair. The teams remained within just one possession of each other on the scoreboard for nearly the entirety of the frame. It felt as if Minnesota possessed the upper hand, though. Behind the strong play of Edwards, Towns and Reid, they seemed to keep the Celtics off balance. It didn’t help matters that offense continued to be lacking for Boston; Brown resumed his scoring barrage, but nobody else seemed to find themselves within the offense. A late 8-2 run helped Minnesota build their biggest lead of the game to that point, as the Celtics entered the final quarter trailing 85-79.
A lightning-fast start to the fourth quarter promised late-game fireworks, as the Celtics and Wolves opened the final frame with threes on each of their first two possessions — in Boston’s case, the first two threes of the game from Sam Hauser. Indeed, the offensive pace of the game appeared to increase dramatically. Tatum connected on his fourth three of the night, while Brown continued to lay siege to the rim, and the Boston offense looked to have found a bit of swagger with their flawless home court record on the line.
It didn’t appear to be enough to turn the tide, however. As the clock ticked closer towards crunch time, the Wolves inched their advantage forward. All the bounces seemed to be going Minnesota’s way; even a savvy play by Tatum to tie up Edwards for a jump ball resulted in disaster, as the Wolves took Edwards’ ensuing tip — which came after an apparent uncalled foul — to the house for a quick layup. With four minutes to play, the Celtics trailed by four, 104-95.
A successful challenge and a friendly whistle gave the Celtics a bit of late life. Mazzulla successfully overturned an out-of-bounds call that would have given possession to Minnesota, and after Tatum converted a layup on the next possession, Minnesota’s Nickeil Alexander-Walker was whistled for an offensive foul. Tatum splashed home a three-pointer with just under two minutes remaining to trim the Celtics’ deficit down to two. A missed three from Jaden McDaniels moments later set up a pivotal crunch time scenario: Celtics with possession, down two, with 41 seconds left to play.
Mazzulla dialed Tatum’s number on the inbounds play, getting him an isolation mismatch against Towns in the near-side corner. Tatum made the first, but missed the second, which proved to be a fortunate development. The ball took a friendly bounce, corralled by White, and moments later, Horford found Holiday in the corner for a three-pointer to flip the lead. Celtics by two, 25 seconds to play.
After a timeout, the Timberwolves called an isolation for Edwards, who drove right and drew a foul en route to the rim from White with seven seconds left on the clock. Mazzulla challenged the call, which appeared perilously close, but was ultimately upheld upon review. Edwards went to the line and converted both of his freebies to tie the game up at 111 apiece. Tatum’s last-second jumper couldn’t find paydirt, and the two teams went to overtime.
Overtime began with an and-one layup from Towns 15 seconds into the extra period. Tatum’s late-game onslaught carried into overtime, though, and the game was quickly tied after a transition take free throw and a dunk to give him 36 points and counting. After the dunk, though, Tatum appeared to pick up an arm injury of some form, as he appeared to be grabbing his shooting arm in evident pain. Towns drilled a three-pointer to put Minnesota up three.
Four straight free throws from Brown put the Celtics back on top, but the Timberwolves would not be quieted. Alexander-Walker’s three-pointer again gave them the advantage, 120-118, and the Celtics squandered a couple of opportunities around an offensive rebound on the ensuing possession.
This was when Tatum opted to put the game away. Showing no ill effects from the apparent injury a few minutes previous, he drew a pair of free throws, converted a layup at the rim and connected on a three-pointer on the Celtics’ next three possessions, going unanswered and forcing a Minnesota timeout. In the blink of an eye, the Boston lead was five points, 125-120, with less than a minute remaining. The Wolves’ last several possessions amounted to nothing, and the Celtics walked away with the win.
Next up, the Celtics will take the court on the second end of the back-to-back for perhaps the highest-profile game of the season thus far: a road visit to the Milwaukee Bucks, Thursday at 7:30 PM on TNT.