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Christopher L. Gasper

It took five heartbeats for the Celtics to defeat the Nets’ dynamic duo in Game 1

Celtics center Al Horford (left) hugs it out with Jayson Tatum in an emotional reaction to Tatum's buzzer-beating layup at the end of Boston's 115-114 victory over the Nets in Game 1 of their first-round NBA playoff series Sunday at TD Garden.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The fateful final points from Jayson Tatum’s tally of 31 that brought TD Garden to basketball babel were symbolic of the path the Celtics must take in this series. The Celtics have to rely on five hoops heartbeats beating in unison to shine brighter than the Brooklyn Nets’ two offensive supernovas.

That’s the formula. That’s how the Celtics win this best-of-seven first-round series. That’s why the Celtics walked off the parquet on Sunday with a Game 1 victory by the skin of their teeth, prevailing 115-114 on a last-second basket that was both a work of art and teamwork.

All five Celtics touched the ball on the decisive possession, starting with Al Horford snagging the rebound of a Kevin Durant long miss — one of many on this evening — with 12.2 seconds left and ending with Marcus Smart finding Tatum for the buzzer-beater. It was apropos and instructive. A loss dodged and a lesson hopefully learned for the Celtics as they opened their pursuit of Banner No. 18 in both agonizing and exciting fashion against a familiar foe and a familiar object of enmity, Kyrie Irving.

Leave the hero ball to Irving and Durant. The Celtics are going to win this series on the strength of their cohesion, balance, and chemistry at both ends. They are the better T-E-A-M.


A gloved fist trumps two raised index fingers — or, in Irving’s case, the middle digit he liberally flashed to the Celtics faithful.

“For us that’s kind of been a microcosm of our season. Guys moving the ball, playing unselfish,” said coach Ime Udoka. “Jaylen [Brown] could’ve forced the shot on [Goran] Dragic. He saw three guys on him. He kicked it to Marcus. He could’ve faked a shot with two guys flying at him. He pump-faked it and saw Jayson cutting. That’s where we’ve really improved at. It kind of all came together on the last possession.”


Irving, who poured in a game-high 39 points, including 18 in the fourth quarter, and Durant are still the headliners here. They can have that title. The Celtics have a more important one in mind.

The final sequence is worthy of review. Horford got his 15th rebound of the game. Down one, Udoka elected not to call a timeout.

The ball bounded from Horford to Derrick White, to Brown, to Smart, who up-faked and drew two Nets (Bruce Brown and Nic Claxton). Smart passed it to a cutting Tatum, who spun around Irving.

Game over, crisis averted.

“I’ve always been told that you have more time than you realize you have,” said Smart, one of four Celtics starters with 20 or more points. “I was about to throw it to Al off the dribble, but I saw JT cut at the last minute. We just wanted to get the easiest shot we can.”

The Celtics certainly didn’t have the easiest finish. Despite their NBA-best defense coiling around Durant and the Nets early and squeezing misses and turnovers out of them, the Nets made it a nail-biter. Brooklyn had more turnovers (12) than assists in the first half (11), yet the game was still tied at the half.

Durant (game-high six turnovers) struggled by only hitting 2 of his first 11 shots. The Celtics opened up a 15-point lead midway through the third. The Celtics still had an 11-point lead entering the fourth after a scintillating final 52.8 seconds.


Nets forward Bruce Brown, who raised the ire of the Celtics by saying that it would be easier to score in the paint with center Robert Williams out, learned the hard way that the Celtics can still protect the paint even without the Time Lord turning back shots.

With Brooklyn’s Brown looking like he was going to make an easy fast-break layup to cut Boston’s lead to 91-87, Jaylen Brown came swooping in like a condor to block his shot and then converted a hanging layup on the other end. Tatum drilled a 3-pointer with seven seconds left for his 27th point, and the Celtics went into the final quarter up (96-85).

It was clear that the Celtics were dancing, prancing, preening, and flexing prematurely.

The Green love to throw hoops haymakers. They’re always looking for the knockout punch and the 20-point blowout. But Irving and Durant aren’t going to be daunted or intimidated, and as any pugilist will tell you when you load up for big shots you also leave yourself susceptible to bruising counters.

The approach against Brooklyn has to be more methodical and more technical. Wear the Nets down. Going for the knockout is not a sound strategy.

“I was just really zeroing in on what the mission was or the goal was, and that was just to play our best basketball, weather the storm, deal with the ups and downs,” said Irving. “Know that we’re going to make runs. They’re going to make runs and be able to respond.”


Speaking of responses, the Parishioners of the Parquet might want to cool it a little with antagonizing Irving. At this point, it’s making both sides look bad and peevish. There’s little to be gained from harassing him for 48 minutes. He keeps dropping points and middle fingers.

Perhaps it's a sign of the times for Celtics fans to check their fear and loathing of Kyrie Irving at the door.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

It’s a toxic relationship best left behind and not to vitriol and back-and-forth bickering and goading. Kyrie shot 60 percent from the field and hit 6 of his 10 threes, including shooting 7 of 9 overall in the fourth when he drilled four of five treys. Is it working?

Irving took the game over with shots with a degree of difficulty that belonged in Olympic figure skating. Durant hit his lone three with 8:04 remaining to put Brooklyn up, 100-98. They were delivering the big punches in the final frame.

After Irving buried another gut-punch three with 45.9 seconds, it left the Celtics down three. Close games have been a basketball bête noire of Boston’s all season.

“We would have probably crumbled,” said Smart. “For a moment there it kind of looked like that was the direction it was going. The resilience we have, the approach that we have, and the work we put in to make sure that doesn’t happen. Just learning.

“Unfortunately, we had a lot of games to learn from with those type of incidents. We wanted to make sure that wasn’t how we went out. Everybody did their jobs. We did it to the best we could do it and everybody helped one another, and we came out with the victory.”


A victory they earned together.

If you look at the game as a race, the Celtics passed the baton from quarter to quarter until they could nip KD, Kyrie, and the Nets at the tape.

Horford (20 points) scored half his points in the first quarter. Tatum dropped 11 in the second quarter. Smart drained three of his four triples and scored 11 points in the third quarter to go along with Tatum’s dozen. Brown scored 9 of his 23 in the final frame.

“We know they have two elite scorers,” said Udoka. “They made some tough shots . . . They’re still going to get their shots. They’re still going to get their numbers.”

Let them get their numbers. The Celtics will take the wins.

Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at christopher.gasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.