Last month, the Celtics twice feasted on an overmatched Nets team that was missing almost all of its top players. The breezy wins helped Boston gain momentum, but it was hard to gauge whether they were flimsy.
On Sunday, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were back with Brooklyn, and it was clear there would be no steamrolling. But Celtics forward Jayson Tatum was fine with that.
“These are the kinds of moments that as a kid, you dreamed about and looked forward to,” he said. “When those opportunities come, you try to make the most of it.”
While Durant and Irving dazzled at times, Tatum stood tallest. The All-Star forward erupted for 54 points and guided the Celtics to a 126-120 win. It was another loud declaration that this team will be a factor when the playoffs arrive.
As Tatum stood at the free-throw line in the final seconds, ‘MVP’ chants rained down from the TD Garden crowd. Center Robert Williams stood near midcourt and urged fans to make them even louder, and they did. This team is prepared to follow Tatum as far as he can lead it. On Sunday, the forward made 16 of 30 shots, 8 of 15 3-pointers, and 14 of 17 free throws. He was a nuisance.
“He takes pride in the matchups against high-level guys.” Celtics coach Ime Udoka said. “We’re not making it a one-on-one thing, but he wants to play well and he takes pride in it. So, impressive for sure, but not unexpected.”
Jaylen Brown, who returned after missing one game because of a sprained ankle, added 21 points for Boston, which made 17 of 36 3-pointers as a team. Durant had 37 points to lead the Nets.
The Celtics mostly revived their season behind a menacing, elite defense that turned opposing teams’ plans into slop. But on Sunday, they showed they are also capable of prevailing in a shootout if that’s what’s required. And playoff wins come in all shapes and sizes, so that’s important.
Boston, which had been 2-11 this season when surrendering 114 points or more, won despite allowing the Nets to shoot 50.6 percent from the field and 44.4 percent from the 3-point line.
“We know how tough we can be on defense,” Tatum said. “When we kind of match that energy on offense, we’ll really be special.”
In recent weeks, questions emerged about whether Boston’s climb could have been a mirage since it was mostly against opponents that were either decimated by injuries or simply not good. But after these powerful wins against the Hawks, Grizzlies, and Nets — all close to full strength — there is now no need for a disclaimer.
“I’m extremely proud of the effort on a night-to-night basis,” Udoka said. “As a coach, you want nothing more than to know what you’re going to have every night. And defensively we knew what we were going to be: a mentally tough team that can play through runs. And offensively we were improving. So I’d describe our group as best as locked in, confident, connected. You see that on both ends of the court.”
The fifth-place Celtics are now just 1½ games behind the second-place 76ers, and no team in the East is playing better than Boston. With 16 games left in the regular season, anything seems possible, a truth that would have been unfathomable a couple of months ago, when this team could not even get out of its own way.
“We know the potential we have,” guard Marcus Smart said. “We understand how good we can be. We understand that these types of tests like tonight are going to show us who we really are and who we really want to be.”
Neither team held a double-digit lead Sunday, but the Celtics pushed ahead, 110-102, midway through the fourth quarter and appeared in control.
Then the Nets responded with a quick 9-0 run that was capped by a Seth Curry 3-pointer that gave the Nets a 111-110 lead with 3:29 left.
But Tatum would not let Boston fold. He made a pair of free throws and then stretched the lead to 114-111 with a tough, hanging layup. After Irving answered with a basket inside, Tatum calmly drained a 17-foot fadeaway.
“Obviously when you kind of get in that zone, the basket just seemed to be a little bit bigger,” Tatum said. “You feel just a little bit better about yourself getting to your spots.”
The Celtics still led by 3 with less than a minute remaining and the shot clock winding down when Brown got Goran Dragic to fly by him with a pump fake and then drilled a 3-pointer that made it 121-115 with 39.6 seconds to play.
“[The ending] was chaos,” Smart said. “It was good chaos.”