The Celtics were on the brink of another embarrassing loss, trailing by 17 early in the third quarter to the league-worst Minnesota Timberwolves, who played nothing like an also-ran for the first 30 minutes. With his team needing a lift, Jayson Tatum picked the perfect time to turn into his absolute offensive best.
With an array of acrobatic layups, stepback 3-pointers, and midrange jumpers, the fourth-year forward carried the Celtics with a career-high 53 points. But it was not without drama, as Boston blew a late 11-point lead and was forced to overtime with so much at stake.
The Celtics did not squander their chance to eclipse .500, and chance to gain much-needed momentum heading on a West Coast road trip, staving off the Timberwolves, 145-136, when Tatum and Kemba Walker hit big shots in the overtime. The Celtics won despite an abysmal defensive first half, and then a late breakdown that allowed Minnesota to score 13 points in the final 2:41 of regulation.
Tatum finished 16-for-25 shooting, including six 3-pointers and a career-high 16 free throw attempts. He had 48 of his 53 in regulation, and 35 after halftime.
“It will be a night I’ll always remember,” he said. “My first 50-point game, [and] we got the win on top of that. I just grew up wanting to be in the NBA when I was a kid. Now I’m living out my dream at a high level and it’s more than I could have ever wished for.”
The Celtics are still trying to establish consistency. A loss to the worst team in the league would have been devastating, and it was quite possible. Minnesota led, 79-62, after a Jaden McDaniels tip-in with 8:36 left in the third quarter. Boston responded with a 58-30 run before the Timberwolves’ late rally.
“He just wouldn’t let us lose,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said of Tatum. “When we were coming back in the third, you could see he had it. The guys did a good job finding him. Don’t mistake his quiet demeanor for [not] being a competitor. He is a competitor.”
The Celtics didn’t relent in overtime, with Tatum scoring his 50th point on a driving dunk to open the period and Walker giving the Celtics cushion with a pair of 3-pointers. Minnesota played valiantly, depending on D’Angelo Russell — who banked in the tying 3 with 9.7 seconds left in regulation — for 26 points. Former All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns led the Timberwolves with 30 despite constant paint battles with Marcus Smart, Tristan Thompson, and Robert Williams.
Observations from the game:
⋅ The Celtics finished 4-3 on this key seven-game homestand, with consecutive wins over the Timberwolves and Knicks to improve to 27-26. With how tight the Eastern Conference is, the win was a critical one, especially with the Knicks (26-27) and Hawks (28-25) also rallying to win on Friday.
“Just more emphasis on finishing them out and stay the course,” Smart said about holding on to late leads. “We had some plays that could really have turned for us and we could have been going down the road we’ve been going down. We just decided, and continue to talk and tell one another, we’ve got to continue to keep going.”
⋅ Friday was a struggle for Walker, who through three quarters was 0-for-5 from the 3-point line with 4 points. He then responded with a stirring spurt, scoring 13 of his 17 points in the fourth quarter and overtime. But his early-game troubles are becoming a concern; he missed several open looks, and appeared hesitant to attack the rim, instead forcing passes while in the air.
He finished with 5-for-14 shooting, adding 9 assists and 7 rebounds to the 17 points.
⋅ The Celtics committed a season-high tying 21 turnovers and have 58 in the past three games. The giveaways are helping opponents score easy points. Minnesota scored 24 points off turnovers Friday.
“We were loose again, too loose with the ball,” Stevens said. “I don’t know why that is because everybody who’s played in the league knows [Minnesota’s Ricky] Rubio is like laying in the weeds trying to steal the ball. We gotta get tougher with the ball. Most teams that want to do anything significant can’t turn it over.”
⋅ The Timberwolves used mostly zone defense throughout the game, and the Celtics had a difficult time scoring in stretches. The zone should look familiar. Minnesota’s head coach is Chris Finch, an assistant with the Raptors last season who helped institute the zone that brought Toronto back in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
⋅ Stevens felt inclined to use Thompson despite him picking up his third foul early in the second quarter. The Celtics were getting gashed defensively in the paint, and Robert Williams struggled to defend the pick-and-roll. Stevens’s gamble worked. Thompson did not pick up his fourth foul in the first half and had a couple of nice offensive plays during the Boston rally.
⋅ The Timberwolves entered with the league’s worst record, but it’s hard to figure out why. Minnesota has two No. 1 overall picks — Towns and Anthony Edwards — along with second overall pick Russell and lottery pick Ricky Rubio.
It was Edwards’ first appearance against the Celtics and he looks as good as advertised, mixing athleticism with a solid perimeter game. He finished with 24 points on just 12 shots, along with 5 rebounds and 5 assists.