The Celtics were veering toward their 129-119 loss to the Trail Blazers on Sunday when that result became the least of their concerns. With 40.4 seconds left and the game all but out of reach, All-Stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown collided while trying to trap Portland’s Norman Powell near the sideline.
Brown, who nearly missed this game because of right ankle pain, appeared to twist it even more as he stepped on Tatum’s foot. Both players collapsed to the floor in front of coach Brad Stevens.
Brown needed the help of two teammates as he hopped to the locker room without putting any weight on his right leg. Tatum had an obvious limp as he followed soon after. Later, Tatum said he believed that he would be OK. But the status of Brown was less clear.
Stevens said there did not appear to be swelling yet, but acknowledged that it could happen overnight. When asked about Brown’s condition, Tatum said simply: “I hope he’s all right.”
Their injuries capped an odd and somewhat frenetic final quarter for the Celtics that included what appeared to be an incorrect offensive goaltending call against Celtics center Tristan Thompson, and the ejection of guard Marcus Smart after he hit Blazers center Jusuf Nurkic in the groin as Nurkic was whistled for an illegal screen.
Plays such as those were too much for Boston to overcome, as Portland connected on a blistering 51.8 percent of its shots and 50 percent of its 3-pointers, and the Celtics committed 18 turnovers.
With the loss, the Celtics slipped back into seventh place in the Eastern Conference with just seven games remaining. If they do not move up from this spot they would enter the play-in tournament that includes the 7-10 seeds. But they are just one game behind the Heat and Hawks, and they have the second easiest remaining schedule in the NBA.
The Celtics trailed, 120-113, with under four minutes left, but pulled within 120-117 on an Evan Fournier 3-pointer. They were in position to get the ball back when Nurkic was whistled for an illegal screen at the 1:56 mark, but Nurkic fell to the floor in pain and the officials conducted a lengthy video review before assessing Smart with a technical foul and ejecting him.
Official Sean Wright said in a pool report after the game that Smart’s contact to Nurkic’s groin was deemed unsportsmanlike.
Damian Lillard hit the technical free throw to make it 121-117, and the Celtics were left without Smart. Two free throws by Tatum pulled the Celtics within two, but Carmelo Anthony answered with a 3-pointer and then Tatum committed a turnover that resulted in a Powell layup that made it 126-119 with 55 seconds left.
“We got beat by a team that’s dialed in,” Stevens said. “They are dialed in. They are playing great basketball, making tough shots.”
Observations from the game:
▪ With 7:27 left in the fourth quarter Thompson appeared to give the Celtics a one-point lead when he followed up a Tatum miss with a putback slam. But offensive goaltending was called, wiping away the shot. Replay showed that it was a legal play, and Stevens tried to call a timeout to challenge the call. But Wright, the lead official, said in the pool report that the ball was already in play when Stevens attempted to call timeout. The Blazers then hit back-to-back 3-pointers, a big momentum shift.
▪ Fournier had been in a substantial slump since returning from his COVID-19 absence but played well in the second half against San Antonio on Friday and on Sunday erupted for 21 points on 8 for 10 shooting. He revealed after the game that his COVID-19 aftereffects have included concussion-like symptoms.
“Right now it’s actually doing a little bit better, but at first the bright lights were bothering my eyes and my vision was blurry,” he said. “Everything was just going too fast for me. It’s still the case. Some stuff is better, but at times I’m really struggling to focus and my eyes keep struggling focusing on one thing. My depth perception is really bad right now.”
Still, Fournier said he intends to play through the issues, and he is confident he will continue to trend in the right direction. He found his rhythm quickly Sunday. He made his first seven shots and just appeared to have more energy.
▪ Smart missed Wednesday’s game against the Hornets after receiving a one-game suspension for a post-game altercation with an official in last Tuesday’s loss to the Thunder. On Sunday, he hurt his team with another costly misstep.
“I’ll look at the replay and then we’ll address that internally,” Stevens said. “But obviously that’s a big play at a big moment.”
▪ Rookie Aaron Nesmith continued his recent surge by scoring 16 points on 6 for 7 shooting. The boost he received from his hustle plays last week seems to now be giving him extra confidence in his offensive game. He has 47 points over his last three games, which is more than he had combined from Feb. 26 to April 27.
“Just sticking with it,” Nesmith said. “Continuing to work and continuing to do the work.”
Foul trouble continues to be a bit of an issue, though. He collected five fouls in each of the last two games, and he was whistled for three fouls in the first 10 minutes on Sunday.
▪ The end of the first quarter was not great for Boston. After Lillard converted a running layup with 36.6 seconds left, Smart rushed upcourt in search of a two-for-one opportunity. But his forced 3-pointer was not close to going in. Anfernee Simons then drilled a 3-pointer for Portland before Robert Williams was called for an illegal screen with 3.6 seconds left. That was plenty of time for CJ McCollum to hit a 3-pointer before the buzzer. It was an 8-0 Portland run in just 36 seconds, and it was an example of why seeking two-for-ones can sometimes end badly.