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Celtics 119, Bulls 103

Celtics look dangerous with Jayson Tatum back from COVID-19, and other observations from rout of Bulls

Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, in his first game back in two weeks after testing positive for COVID-19, scores on a reverse layup in Monday night's win over the host Chicago Bulls.
Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, in his first game back in two weeks after testing positive for COVID-19, scores on a reverse layup in Monday night's win over the host Chicago Bulls.Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

Jayson Tatum said that the first night after testing positive for COVID-19 on Jan. 9 was the most difficult. He had a headache, body aches, fever and chills, and wasn’t sure what would come next.

Thankfully, all of those symptoms vanished the following day. But the mental challenges persisted.

“It was on my mind,” he said. “I was thinking like, ‘Do I feel OK? Do I not feel OK? Is it in my mind? Can I smell this? Does my chest hurt? Or am I just overthinking?’ And then you’re on lockdown for two weeks. So yeah, mentally it can be tough, especially at first.”

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But Tatum knew he would be back with his teammates soon, back where he is most comfortable. And when he returned to face the Bulls on Monday night, it mostly looked as if he had never left, and he provided a reminder of how dangerous this team will be when all of its weapons are available.

The All-Star led a balanced attack with 24 points, 5 assists and 4 rebounds, helping the Celtics to a 119-103 win in Chicago. Jaylen Brown added 26 points, Daniel Theis had 19, and Marcus Smart had 13 points and 11 assists.

Observations from the game:

▪ When the Celtics selected Aaron Nesmith with the 14th pick of the draft they hoped he could become a knockdown shooter off the bench. There is still time for that, of course, but the first month of the season gave little reason to believe he was ready for that role. On Monday, though, he entered the game when it still mattered and hit a pair of first-half catch-and-shoot 3-pointers. He has a good stroke and his college stats are impressive, so a small stretch like this could provide a needed confidence boost.

Nesmith was Boston’s first sub in the second half. He missed a 3-pointer from the left corner, but did well to hustle back on defense and break up an alley-oop to Zach LaVine. Then he curled off a screen and drilled another 3 from the top of the key to stretch Boston’s lead to 89-74.

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“It’s been a journey,” Nesmith said. “It’s been tough at times for sure, but just trying to expedite my learning curve and make sure I’m always locked in.”

▪ Tatum looked sharp at the start, hitting a nice mid-range stepback and a tough reverse layup before pulling up for a 3-pointer at the left arc over the game’s first 3 minutes, 30 seconds.

He went just 2 for 8 over the rest of the half including a rare air-ball on a 3-pointer, but bounced back to score 13 points in the second.

Brad Stevens said he was pleased with Tatum’s play given the long layoff and had no concerns about his offensive game returning quickly.

“My hope is always when guys come back off long layoffs and minutes restrictions is that they push themselves defensively, and with cutting and with sprinting the floor in transition on offense, because you’re going to get winded quickly,” Stevens said. “So that’s why you can’t play long stretches.”

▪ Smart was in control from the start, playing at a nice pace and orchestrating the offense. He finished the first half with 11 points on 4 of 5 shooting, along with 6 assists and 3 rebounds. His best play of the game, unsurprisingly, came on defense, when he hustled back and broke up a Bulls three-on-one break in the third quarter by swatting away Garrett Temple’s layup attempt.

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Marcus Smart shoots past Chicago's Zach LaVine during the first half of Monday's game.
Marcus Smart shoots past Chicago's Zach LaVine during the first half of Monday's game.Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

▪ Smart has gotten so good at sensing when a perimeter defender is chasing him too aggressively around a screen. He stops almost instantly, making it nearly impossible for an opponent to avoid making contact. This approach resulted in one three-point foul in the first half.

▪ Kemba Walker is expected to be back against San Antonio, which would put the Celtics’ top three offensive weapons on the floor together for the first time this year. Theis smiled when he considered what could be possible then. “With Kemba, JT, JB, Smart on the wings,” he said, “it’s almost impossible to guard us.”

There is a chance the wait could be a bit longer, though. The Spurs’ game vs. the Pelicans on Monday was postponed because of COVID-19 contact tracing protocols. Stevens said after Monday’s win he had not been told whether the Celtics would travel to San Antonio.

▪ After being gashed for 119.5 points per game in the two losses to the 76ers last week, the Celtics’ defense has bounced back a bit by holding both the Cavaliers and the Bulls to 103 points in these lopsided wins.

“I think all the guys who came back from last year, we didn’t do a good job helping all the new guys to adjust to our system,” Theis said. “We know we’re talented offensively, but when we get into games like Philadelphia where it’s just a shootout, it’s not how we want to play. All of our identity is defense. We can’t give up 120 points in back-to-back games and hope we win.”

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▪ Grant Williams sat for the first 38 minutes before checking in with 10 minutes left in the fourth, and he had some productive minutes. He did well to challenge Lauri Markkanen in the post on a couple of possessions, freed up Tatum with some solid screens, and even drilled a 3-pointer to stretch the lead back to 111-98 after Chicago had pulled within 10.


Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @adamhimmelsbach.