Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray combined to shoot 29-of-43 (67.4%) from the field, and Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown shot a combined 2-of-16 (12.5%) from three-point range, but Boston still managed to hold the Nuggets to 102 points on the night and found themselves one shot away from overtime.
It all came down to the last five minutes.
They shot just 2-of-10 in clutch time, with their only makes being a Brown layup at the 4:51 mark and a monstrous Tatum dunk with 1:41 remaining.
Four of the Celtics’ eight clutch-time misses were three-pointers, all of which were stand-still jump shots that just didn’t fall—two Derrick White misses, one from Al Horford, and one from Brown.
“Honestly, I still think we got a lot of great looks,” Tatum said. “One of those times in the fourth quarter, we got the offensive rebound twice, or three times, and we had three good looks from three. And I feel like we just kind of missed some shots late in the game.
“But Joe said it in the locker room: we still moved the ball pretty well for the most part, [and] generated some good looks. [They] just didn’t go down when we needed them to.”
The other four shots were taken by Tatum, who took just one three-pointer in the second half after a 1-of-7 showing from distance. However, all four of his misses in the clutch were two-point shots.
As the game neared its end, the pace slowed down. Both teams fought to get the best possible shot, and in turn, possessions got longer and longer, especially with the offensive rebounds both teams were snagging left and right.
Boston, at their best in fast-paced situations and with the ball zipping around the perimeter, fell into the slog of late shot clock shots. Combined with their lack of shot-making, it made for a brutal offensive showing in the fourth.
The game ultimately came down to two Tatum shots in the final 18 seconds of the game.
With just over 20 seconds left in the contest, the Celtics got a turnover, and Tatum rushed the ball to the other end. Rather than resetting the offense and slowing the pace, Tatum ran.
He got through Jokic and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, but the two-time MVP poked the ball lose, leading to a wild layup attempt over Jamal Murray.
“In those situations, you always want to be aggressive,” Tatum said. “And then let your instincts take over and try to make the right play. But I missed a couple of bunnies at the end. I gotta be better and just really finish those.”
The Celtics could have milked the clock down up 101-100 and went for the final shot, but Tatum tried to make a play, and it didn’t work out.
It was an awkward drive that resulted in zero points for the Celtics, but a possession they’re willing to live with.
“Well, your best player has the ball and an opportunity, and whether it was on two or three guys, he got a layup and just missed it,” Joe Mazzulla said of the play. “So I mean, the balance is you trust your best player to make a play, and [he] just didn’t make it.”
Boston fouled Aaron Gordon shortly after, sending the 62.2% free-throw shooter to the stripe. One make and one weird lane violation ruling later, the Celtics won an odd jump ball decision and had the ball with a chance to tie or take the lead down 102-100.
After a Mazzulla timeout, Boston’s first attempt at a play failed. So, he called another with just under five seconds left in the game.
“Well, they had a foul to give. So, I was making sure that we just got the shot and got into the set that we wanted,” Mazzulla said. “And so, I wasn’t sure when they were going to use their foul to give. So, getting JB in his spot, I thought he got into the paint, and he did a good job kicking it out. And then they were about to use their foul to give when I called the timeout.”
Tatum got the ball with Caldwell-Pope on his back. He turned around and threw up a middy, but it missed.
“I think I kind of rushed it. And that’s on me. In the back of my mind, I wasn’t sure if they were going to foul. They had to foul to give. But I had more time than I gave myself, so I should have [taken] some more time. But you can’t go back. So, [it’s] something I can learn from.”
With five minutes left in the game, the Celtics were up 96-95. The final five minutes saw a combined 11 points scored, and Boston’s offense wasn’t able to support their defense, which held the Nuggets to 3-of-10 shooting in that time, including 0-of-5 in the last two minutes.
The Celtics may end up being content with their shot selection, but they didn’t fall when they needed to. And against a team as talented as the defending champs, that’s sometimes all that matters.