The Celtics were sent off the court at halftime Friday by a chorus of boos from about 2,000 fans who certainly weren’t enjoying their night. Boston trailed the Spurs by 29 points, and when it reached the locker room, coach Brad Stevens told his players that they’d deserved the catcalls.
He acknowledged later that his young daughter, Kinsley, actually went home at that point, because she had better ways to spend her evening than to watch her father’s team get pummeled. Surely, plenty of others had the same idea.
There was one bright spot during that forgettable first half, though. Despite the deficit, despite the fact that none of his teammates could do much to help him, Jayson Tatum had kept his head up and continued to push, continued to believe, and continued to score.
And it turned out that his big first half was just the beginning. The All-Star forward completed one of the biggest comebacks in franchise history with one of the most dominant offensive performances. He tied Larry Bird’s single-game Celtics scoring record with 60 points and ignited Boston’s rally from a 32-point deficit that ended with an improbable and enthralling 143-140 overtime win.
“That boy,” Celtics forward Jaylen Brown said, “is destined for greatness.”
At the final buzzer Tatum seemed at once ecstatic and exhausted as he was mobbed by his teammates. But the Celtics needed everything he gave them in his 45 minutes, 20 seconds on the court. He was 20 for 37 from the field and 15 for 17 from the foul line.
Rookie Aaron Nesmith had his second consecutive big game, with a career-high 16 points and 6 rebounds, as well as a key steal in the final seconds, when the Spurs were in position to potentially force a second overtime. Brown had a mostly miserable night, going 5 for 24, but all that will really be remembered is his 3-pointer from the left corner with 16.7 seconds left in overtime that flipped a 1-point deficit into a lead that was never relinquished.
When the team returned to the locker room a few minutes later, there were no discussions about boos or lack of resolve or anything like that. Instead, Tatum received a celebratory soaking from his teammates, the kind of gleeful moment that has been rare during this puzzling Celtics season.
“Just to have your teammates be happy for you means everything,” Tatum said. “And obviously to come back and win, this was a great night.”
With the win, the Celtics pulled into a fifth-place tie with the Hawks with eight games remaining. A loss would have left Boston alone in seventh place. But this big night and an extremely favorable schedule should put the Celtics in the mix to grab the No. 4 seed by season’s end.
The Celtics were outscored, 77-48, in a miserable first half before erupting for 95 in the second half and overtime. Stevens was pleased with his team’s resiliency afterward, but he had a measured tone because he did not want to forget what created the need for this historic comeback in the first place.
“To be candid, I was pissed, disappointed,” Stevens said. “We can’t be like that … I guess I’m dual emotions right now. I’m happy with the comeback. I’m happy with the effort. I love the way that we played and competed. But the starts are ridiculous. That was ridiculous, how we started the game. If we want to be any good, we’ve got to change that.”
Tatum was locked in and engaged at the start, but he was on an island. More than 11 minutes passed before anyone else scored, and Boston trailed by 23 points by the time the first quarter ended. Stevens quipped that if not for Tatum, it might have been a shutout.
Big leads vanish quickly in the NBA, particularly when they are built that early. But this one lingered and then grew to as many as 32 points in the second quarter, and stood at 93-65 with 6:41 left in the third.
Boston gave itself a chance by closing the period with a 25-10 burst and slicing the deficit to 13. And the attack did not end there.
Tatum sparked the fourth-quarter surge with several powerful drives to the hoop, including a dunk, and a layup that tied the score at 120 with 3:39 left in regulation. After Dejounte Murray put San Antonio back in front with a tough runner with 51.5 seconds left, Tatum stepped into a deep 3-pointer from the top of the key and drilled it, giving Boston a 127-126 lead.
The Celtics got the ball back after a turnover and Tatum was fouled with 18.8 seconds to play. He missed the first but made the second, putting the Celtics in front by 2. But DeMar DeRozan hit a pair of free throws, and Tatum’s potential game-winning 18-footer rimmed out at the buzzer, leading to overtime.
“If he would have made the shot at the end of regulation, he wouldn’t have tied Bird’s record,” Stevens quipped. “So maybe that was all a big part of his plan.”
Neither team could create separation in the extra session, but Tatum kept Boston close. The Spurs led, 132-130, before Tatum scored Boston’s next 6 points, including a fadeaway that gave the Celtics a 136-135 lead with 51.9 seconds left
Lonnie Walker put San Antonio back in front with a jumper. The Spurs then successfully challenged a shooting foul against Jakob Poeltl on a lob to Robert Williams. But it did not work out in their favor.
Even though San Antonio had gained possession, the result was a jump ball, which Williams easily won. Marcus Smart then found Brown for the go-ahead 3-pointer with 16.7 seconds left.
“I knew I couldn’t miss forever,” Brown said.
Nesmith stole the ensuing sideline inbounds lob and found Tatum, who was fouled and hit both free throws. Patty Mills gave the Spurs one last chance by hitting a 3-pointer with 4.9 seconds remaining to slice the deficit to 141-140. But Tatum finished off the win with a pair of free throws, and the Spurs never got a shot off.
“It’s hard to put into words,” Tatum said, “but this is a surreal feeling.”