If the Celtics don’t execute perfectly in the final 47 seconds at TD Garden, they are right back where they started, a below .500 team seeking consistency and reliability from their standout players.
The final 47 seconds of Sunday night’s 111-110 victory over the Wizards may have changed the course of the Celtics’ season. When they appeared done, and ready to surrender to a brilliant Bradley Beal and a better-than-usual Russell Westbrook, the Celtics responded with perfection.
Nothing else would have worked.
Jayson Tatum, who has received his share of criticism for his shoddy play in February — 38.6 percent shooting, 31.8 from the 3-point line, and a minus 1.1 entering Sunday — responded with a stellar stretch to end a tough month. With Jaylen Brown out with knee soreness, Tatum shouldered the responsibility in carrying the Celtics to victory, scoring the final 8 points, including a layup with 4.7 seconds left.
Tatum finished with 31 points, but more importantly, raised his game a level like All-Stars need to in the critical times. He has been uneven in his career in those pivotal moments, but Sunday, he scored three tough buckets in the final 43.1 seconds to snatch victory from Washington, which was celebrating after Beal scored his 46th point on a layup to put the Wizards up 5.
The win not only brings the Celtics (17-17) back to .500, but they are 2-0 in this four-game stretch coach Brad Stevens called the most important of the season after some listless play of late. And at this point, the Celtics can’t be picky with how they get these victories. They led by 11 three minutes into the third quarter before the offense shut down, and the Wizards actually raced to an 8-point lead with 2:56 left.
The Celtics didn’t lose their poise, responding with 7 consecutive points before the Wizards came back with four in a row, setting them up for another impressive road victory. The Celtics’ reaction to this adversity was to simply play the game right and take their chances.
After three excruciating road losses, and a tough win Friday against the Indiana Pacers, the Celtics showed character with their rally Sunday.
“We made some big plays,” guard Kemba Walker said. “We just stayed poised. We were just pretty locked in at the end. We stood tough. When times get hard, it’s so easy to separate. The hardest thing to do is to come together. That’s what we did. We’ve got to believe in each other. We’re with each other every single day.”
Washington basically allowed Tatum to score a layup, and then the Celtics defended well enough to force Westbrook into another 3-point shot. He missed. Tatum then hit a difficult left-handed layup through contact with 12 seconds left, and the Celtics responded with their biggest play of the game.
A team that has been undisciplined, fouling at the worst possible times, didn’t. Beal was expecting a double team on the inbounds when he was trapped by Tatum and Javonte Green, but the foul never came, and Beal tripped over his own feet for a critical turnover.
That set the stage for Tatum’s heroics. His winning layup was appropriately scored with Beal, his mentor, guarding him. He freed himself with a spin move and laid it in against two defenders.
The most important play of the game was the last. The Celtics could have easily given up the winning bucket to Beal, afraid to foul and burned so many times by the opposing team’s best player — Zion Williamson, Luka Doncic, Trae Young — in the past week. More impressive than those buckets from Tatum was the trap on Beal as he streaked to catch the inbounds pass.
Beal had no room in between Tatum and Semi Ojeleye, and tossed up a prayer at the buzzer that nearly rolled in. Those defensive plays are what is going to make Tatum a top-5 player, something more than just a prolific scorer. The NBA has several of those, but not enough two-way players.
“It’s something I take pride in, just trying to be elite on both ends of the floor,” he said. “Obviously, he was on fire, and we were just trying to figure out a way to slow him down. The last play, we knew the ball was going to him and I wanted to guard him. We did a great job of attacking, getting that trap. He’s the leading scorer in the NBA. It was a group effort trying to get those stops late.”
The Celtics needed to make this surge when they did. They came back from their Wednesday drubbing against the Atlanta Hawks in turmoil, humiliated despite claiming they were desperate to play better. They have replaced those words with actions the past two games.
Washington is not the same club that looked like it was headed straight for the league’s worst record a month ago. The Wizards have beaten Denver twice, Portland, and the Los Angeles Lakers on the road. They rallied behind Beal, pushing a vulnerable team to the brink on Sunday.
But the Celtics gathered themselves and pushed back.
“We see each other more than we see our families; it’s a choice to have to make and we made the choice to come closer,” Walker said. “We just have to keep it that way. There might be some more bad times. You never know with the course of the NBA season goes. But we’re going to lean on us staying together and being the brothers we know we can be to each other.”