During a free-flowing, 3-point-raining first half that saw the Celtics explode to a 24-point lead over the Blazers on Sunday, coach Brad Stevens was uneasy.
“These leads dissipate quick,” he said. “I was telling those guys in the huddle [that] sometimes the worst thing against Portland is to be up, because those guys just play free.”
Stevens was prescient. Damian Lillard led Portland’s resurgence. But after the Blazers took the lead in the fourth quarter and put the Celtics on the edge of another loss in Orlando, Jaylen Brown provided a powerful answer. The forward was 6 for 6 in the final period and scored 22 of his 30 points in the second half, helping the Celtics eke out a 128-124 win.
“Jaylen was enormous tonight,” Stevens said.
Jayson Tatum shook off his off night against the Bucks by erupting for 34 points, and Gordon Hayward added 22 points and 8 rebounds. Lillard and Jusuf Nurkic scored 30 points apiece for the Blazers.
The Celtics led, 58-34, with 3:58 left in the second quarter. But danger lurks when Lillard is on the other side. He needed just over two minutes to hit his third 3-pointer of the fourth quarter, tying the score at 98.
Lillard’s stepback jumper with 7:36 left gave Portland its largest lead, 105-101. But Brown responded with a tough, double-clutch fadeaway with 2:20 left to put Boston back in front, 118-116. Then with the Celtics clinging to a 122-119 lead, he drained a 3-pointer from the right corner that stretched the lead to 6 with 31.8 seconds left.
Observations from the game:
▪ The Blazers trailed, 125-122, with 6.8 seconds left and had a chance to tie with a 3-pointer, but Lillard fed Nurkic for a layup with 3.4 seconds left. It was a puzzling decision considering Portland was out of timeouts and could not advance the ball after fouling the Celtics.
“In my mind, I was going to catch it and fire,” Lillard said. “I caught it and I was going to shoot it, and I overthought it. I throw it to Nurk. It didn’t work out. I should’ve just taken the shot.”
▪ Tatum, coming off the grisly 2-for-18 shooting night against Milwaukee on Friday, did not try to force his rhythm in the first quarter, when he took just three shots.
His biggest moment might have come in the second quarter. He fired up a mid-range fadeaway that missed the rim by about a foot. It was the kind of miss a player coming off such a bad game might think about, but he didn’t have any time, as Enes Kanter tracked down the rebound and fed him for an open three that he drilled. The rest of the quarter was his oyster, including a 3-pointer from five feet beyond the top of the key.
“I was just watching film, had to stay on balance,” Tatum said. “I think I was more on balance today shooting threes and pullup threes that I missed the other day. Just getting back to the basics, getting back to my routine, shooting the ball the right way.”
▪ Opportunities are also sometimes fleeting for Tatum because teams are paying more attention to him. But he continues to seek out the proper play, and he registered a career-high eight assists Sunday. The most impactful one came with the collapse in progress and Boston trailing, 101-98. He drove to the basket, drew three defenders and whipped a one-handed dart to Brown, who hit a three from the left arc.
“It’s just making reads,” Tatum said. “It’s as simple as making the right pass. You see a double team, you’re drawing a lot of attention, somebody’s going to be open.”
▪ Celtics starters made 17 of 23 3-pointers (73.9 percent). It’s wild that the Blazers even had a shot after taking a punch like that.
▪ The Blazers erupted for 76 points in the second half, with Lillard, C.J. McCollum, and Gary Trent Jr. combining to make 11 of 20 3-pointers. The return of the burly Nurkic poses new problems for defending Portland’s pick-and-rolls, but Stevens said he was actually pleased by the coverage by his big men. He said the issue when the Blazers unfurled their rally was that the Celtics guards started going under screens.
“That may have been the wear-and-tear of guarding those guys as well as we did in the first half and how hard you have to play, and what you need to do to take those threes away,” he said. “But you can’t go under them. At the same time, it’s easier for me to say that than to actually do it, because they set the angles of the screens.”
▪ Kemba Walker’s minutes restriction was raised slightly. He had 14 points on 5-of-6 shooting in 22 minutes, but was once again forced to watch the fourth quarter of a close game from the bench, as the Celtics remain cautious with his left knee.
“I really ain’t got no choice, obviously,” Walker said. “Brad is not putting me back in. Doesn’t matter the kind of emotions I’ve got. He’s not going over the restriction limit. It doesn’t matter. My best bet is to stay positive, cheer my teammates on to the best of my ability, and that’s what I try to do.”
Still, for the Celtics, it’s encouraging to see how smoothly he is moving when he’s on the floor.
▪ The virtual fans have been pretty cool, and the Celtics had some star power in their digital cheering section on Sunday. In a corner of the video board near Boston’s bench, former Celtics star Paul Pierce, Walker’s mother Andrea, and Tatum’s young son Deuce could all be seen cheering for the Celtics.
“I saw Deuce,” Tatum said. “He’s a fan favorite and everybody loves to see him. So I was happy he was able to watch the game and I could see him watching.”
▪ For those who are focused on what’s next, this result actually could end up hurting Boston’s treasure chest of draft picks a bit. With a win, the Blazers would have pulled within a 1½ games of the eighth-place Grizzlies with six games left. Boston will get Memphis’s pick this season as long as it falls outside of the top six, so it would prefer for the Grizzlies to fall out of their playoff position. This restart setup is unusual, of course, with the ninth-place team getting a play-in matchup against the eighth-place team if the two are separated by four games or less. It will be double-elimination for the eighth-place team and single-elimination for the ninth-place team.