Celtics guard Marcus Smart said that over the years his coaches have preached that when a clock is winding down, there is usually more time to accomplish a goal than it seems.
Of course, it is one thing to comprehend such a maxim, and another to trust it in the final moments of a playoff game against the Nets, with 19,156 fans standing and roaring and mostly hoping that time would stand still.
Just 3.7 seconds remained when Smart caught a pass well beyond the left arc with his team trailing by 1 point. The Nets believed Smart was going to launch a shot, as two defenders charged at him like he was a quarterback. Jayson Tatum believed Smart was going to launch a shot, as he started to slither in from the top of the key in hopes of corralling a rebound.
But Smart pump-faked, pushed into open space with one dribble, and saw Tatum before it was too late.
It was a lot, but Smart reminded himself that there was still time, and there was still a chance. He slipped the ball to Tatum, who spun around Kyrie Irving and banked in a layup at the buzzer, sending Boston to a thrilling 115-114 win and a 1-0 lead in the Eastern Conference first-round series.
As TD Garden shook, Tatum roared and raised both arms before making a beeline toward his mother in her courtside seat. He later said it might have been the loudest he has ever heard the building. Irving just stood there, stunned.
About a half-hour after that wild ending, Smart walked into an interview room in the bowels of the arena, where four stairs led him up to the podium. He walked past them and just jumped onto the stage before juxtaposing this wild, satisfying finish with the Celtics’ missteps from earlier this season.
“It was fulfilling for us, especially because of the way we started this year off,” he said. “Those types of games, we lost. We were probably crumbling. And for a moment there, it kind of looked like that was the direction it was going.”
But these Celtics are no longer those Celtics. Boston didn’t crawl out of 11th place in the East, it vaulted out. And last week, with an opportunity to avoid Irving, Kevin Durant, and this dangerous Nets team, the Celtics just shrugged, set up this matchup by pummeling the Grizzlies, and announced that they would not duck anyone.
There were times late in Sunday’s game, though, when that approach certainly appeared flawed.
The Nets trailed by 11 points at the start of the fourth and were on the verge of being punted onto Causeway Street before Irving saved them.
Facing the boos and chants that have been customary when Irving returns here to face his former team, and pushing back by sticking up his middle finger at least twice, the point guard seized control. He sparked Brooklyn’s 15-2 run that pushed the Nets back in front, and then drilled a 3-pointer with 45.9 seconds left that gave his team a 114-111 lead, and gave him 39 points.
“We talked about staying poised, being able to move on,” Horford said. “At that point, a team can go one of two ways.”
But the Nets did not score again.
Jaylen Brown carved into the paint for a quick layup, and during a timeout that followed, the Celtics decided they would do whatever they could to keep Irving from beating them. The risk with that approach, of course, is that Brooklyn also has Durant.
And when Irving was double-teamed on the wing it left Durant in single coverage at the top of the key. But Tatum held his ground and forced Durant, who made just 9 of 24 shots, into a tough 3-point attempt that caromed off the side of the rim.
Horford gobbled up the rebound with 12.2 seconds left, and on the sideline coach Ime Udoka had to instantly decide whether to call timeout or believe in his players to push up court against an unsettled defense and find a way.
“That’s a big confidence builder for us,” Smart said. “The coach trusted us to go out there and make a play and be basketball players.”
All five Celtics touched the ball. Horford passed to Derrick White, who pushed the ball ahead to Brown, who drove against two defenders and whipped a crosscourt pass to Smart. Time was ticking, but not fast enough for Brooklyn.
“For us, I think that’s kind of a microcosm of our season,” Udoka said. “Guys moving the ball, playing unselfish. Jaylen could have forced the shot on [Goran] Dragic. He saw three guys on him, he kicked it to Marcus. He could have forced a shot over two guys flying at him. He pump-faked it, could have took the pull-up and saw Jayson cutting. So that’s sort of really improved and it kind of came all together on the last possession.”
Tatum finished with 31 points and eight assists to lead Boston. Brown had 23 points, Horford added 20 points and 15 rebounds, and Smart had 20 points and six assists, none bigger than his last one.