It should have been a night of celebration for Celtics forward Jaylen Brown. Earlier Tuesday he learned he had been named an All-Star for the first time in his five-year career, joining Jayson Tatum — a two-time honoree — on basketball’s grand stage.
But late Tuesday night, he trudged into an interview room in Dallas and sighed. He wasn’t very happy.
“Don’t feel very much like an All-Star,” he said, “because I think this is the most I’ve lost since I’ve been here as a Celtic.”
Unfortunately for Brown and Tatum, the Mavericks have their own All-Star, and 21-year-old Luka Doncic was the only one of the three to end the night how he wished.
After the Celtics erased an 11-point deficit in the final three minutes, Doncic drilled two 3-pointers in the final 15.8 seconds, including his deep dagger from the left arc with 0.1 seconds left that sent his team to a 110-107 win.
Doncic had 31 points, 10 rebounds, and 8 assists. Brown finished with 29 points and Tatum added 28. Tatum said he was pleased to be named to the All-Star team, but like Brown, his joy was someone fleeting. With nearly half of this season complete, the Celtics have now slipped below .500 (15-16).
“It’s like, damn, I look at our record and where we’re at, and it’s hard to really focus on that when where we aren’t where we want to be at as a team,” he said.
A Jalen Brunson 3-pointer with 3:12 left gave Dallas a seemingly commanding 104-93 lead. But at the other end, Kemba Walker heaved up a 3-pointer as he was fouled, and the ball caromed in off the backboard, giving the Celtics a chance.
Walker then found Tatum for another 3-pointer, and, after a Doncic miss, Walker drilled a three from the left arc that made it 104-103 with 1:55 remaining. Boston took a 105-104 lead on a 12-footer by Brown with 37.6 seconds to play before Doncic answered with a 3-pointer that snapped a three-minute Mavericks scoring drought and gave Dallas a 107-105 edge.
After Brown scored inside to tie to score at 107 with 9.5 seconds left, Doncic patiently dribbled upcourt, created some space to his left before Boston could double-team him, and drained a deep 3-pointer from with the ease of someone shooting in his driveway.
Observations from the game:
▪ The Celtics essentially tipped their caps to Doncic for making a pair of superstar shots when his team needed them most, but ultimately they did not quite do enough to either get the ball out of his hands or make his looks more uncomfortable.
On the first one, Brown played excellent on-ball defense for several seconds, halting Doncic’s drive just inside the foul line and forcing him to pick up his dribble with nowhere to go. Doncic kicked the ball out and quickly got it back before probing near the right arc as Daniel Theis came up to help.
The Celtics had a chance to trap Doncic, but Brown shaded toward Dorian Finney-Smith, leaving Theis on his own. He stuck with Doncic on the initial push before the Mavericks star stepped back and drilled the 3-pointer.
“Theis does a good job of challenging shots,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said, “and in fact, he’s one of our better guys at challenging shots, because his length impacts people up there on the ball. And when a guy is shaking and raising like that, the only thing that you maybe do different would be to run at him instead of putting two on him in that moment.”
Added Brown: “When a guy gets it going like that, it’s tough, but we’ve got to get the ball out of his hands, for sure.”
▪ Stevens said this week that he could envision rookie Aaron Nesmith getting opportunities to close games to help space the floor for Tatum and Brown, and Nesmith was on the court as Brown slid to the hoop for the game-tying layup. The Mavericks were out of timeouts, though, and that meant Nesmith would get a trial by fire in a big spot.
Brown was screened soon after Doncic crossed midcourt, forcing Nesmith to switch onto the ball. Nesmith seemed to be expecting help on his right side, as he briefly pointed in that direction and Doncic took the opportunity to push past him with two hard dribbles to the left arc. Walker and Nesmith tried to challenge the shot but didn’t really disrupt Doncic’s rhythm. Still, it was no easy attempt, with Doncic standing at least 5 feet behind the 3-point line.
“I think it’s hard when you’re in the bonus and you don’t want to switch up into his air space and foul,” Stevens said. “I think obviously we wanted to put two on him. We tried to run two at him a lot. But we were just a step behind.”
▪ The Mavericks entered the free throw penalty early in both the third and fourth quarters. In addition to the resulting foul shots, it also has a negative effect on the defense, particularly in those final moments.
“If we can switch up into Doncic’s air space at 50 feet and foul him, that’s a totally different deal,” Stevens said. “We’re trying to be more physical because we need to be, but we’ve got to balance that with fouling.”
▪ Walker’s big moments have been infrequent this season, but each one has been followed by the hope that it could be the start of something big. Tuesday brought another example. He scuffled through the first three quarters, going 3 for 11 with just 7 points, before erupting for 10 points in the final 3:29. Boston will have to wait to see if this provides a jolt of momentum, though, because Walker is expected to sit out against the Hawks on Wednesday to rest his left knee.
▪ The Celtics figured to be energetic and eager to atone for their collapse against the Pelicans on Sunday, but their defense in the first quarter certainly did not make it look that way. The Mavericks routinely waltzed into the paint and faced minimal resistance as they got to the hoop. Doncic probably makes this look a bit easier than it was, but it still did not seem that Boston was giving its highest level of effort.
Stevens said he did not notice the lack of intensity, however.
“I do think we’re not as good defensively as we have been in the last few years,” he said. “So that’s another part of it.”