After Jayson Tatum’s layup beat the buzzer to lift the Celtics over the Nets Sunday afternoon, the same three words kept popping up.
What. A. Game.
The anticipation was already palpable heading into the first-round series, but the fact that Game 1 delivered? As Love noted, how can one not be excited about what’s to come?
For Boston, the wild ending averted what would have been a deflating, double-digit collapse. Despite the breakdowns, though, there were multiple reasons for the Celtics to be encouraged following their 115-114 victory.
Veteran forward Al Horford lived up to his “Playoff Al” nickname from 2018, tallying 20 points and 15 rebounds in 41 minutes. He became just the 13th player in league history to record such a performance at 35 or older, joining the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hakeem Olajuwon, Tim Duncan, and Dirk Nowitzki.
Horford’s presence was especially felt at the beginning of the game. He made three of his four shots in the first quarter, while the rest of the Celtics starters shot a combined 2 of 9. Ten of Horford’s points, including two 3-pointers, came during that span.
“Al’s been doing this for, what — 15 years now?” guard Marcus Smart said. “The experience he brings to this team is huge for us. Al’s the cool, calm, and collected guy that keeps us cool and calm when things are going on. Al doesn’t say much, but when he does, it’s time to listen.”
Throughout the game, Horford stayed vocal and proved to be vital on both ends. His decision-making on defense, particularly on Brooklyn’s last possession, made all the difference.
“Al was Al,” said Celtics coach Ime Udoka. “He does everything we’re asking for, from guarding the bigs to playing in touch coverage to switching and guarding some of these guys.”
Also encouraging for the Celtics was Jayson Tatum, who filled the stat sheet with 31 points and 8 assists, both team highs. The dramatic game-winner will steal the show on any highlight reel, but Tatum came through with a number of impressive baskets, passes, and defensive stops.
According to the NBA’s matchup data, Tatum was most often the primary defender on Kevin Durant. He surrendered just 4 points on 2-of-6 shooting by Durant and forced four turnovers.
In the closing minute of the third quarter, with the Celtics leading by 8, Tatum closely defended Durant and forced him to take a mid-range jumper that fell well short of the rim. Then, on the very next possession, he isolated against Nic Claxton and swished a three to bring Boston’s lead to 11. The stretch capped a 12-point quarter for Tatum.
Both Horford and Tatum played important roles in limiting Durant, who clearly struggled offensively. In the first half, Durant made just 2 of his 10 shot attempts for 7 points. He finished with 23 on 9-of-24 shooting, with his field goal percentage (37.5) noticeably down from his regular-season average of 51.8.
Tatum stressed that containing Durant is a collective effort.
“Obviously, you have to take pride in guarding him one-on-one but listen to the guys behind you,” Tatum said. “Everybody is helping. It’s not just one guy contesting, it’s probably going to be two. Just try not to give him any clean, easy looks. That’s all you can really ask for.”
Nets coach Steve Nash attributed Durant’s struggles to Boston’s physicality.
“I thought they were really physical,” Nash said. “They put their hands on him a lot. They definitely crowded his space. But with the physicality, I thought they were able to really get two hands on him more than the game warranted.”
Durant credited the Celtics, who finished the regular season with the league’s best defensive rating. He emphasized that he needs to be “more fundamental” with his moves, slow down a bit, and focus on his game. But neither he nor the Nets are concerned about him moving forward — and understandably so.
Durant, considered one of the greatest scorers of all time, is one of the reasons why this series was so compelling in the first place. His potential bounce-back is one of several factors to watch for in Game 2, along with the seemingly never-ending drama between Irving and Celtics fans.
There are plenty of questions. Will Durant and Irving eventually take over in an overpowering fashion? Can the Celtics keep up the high level of play that powered their turnaround? Will Ben Simmons return? Will Rob Williams, if the series needs seven?
Of the eight first-round games this weekend, five were decided by a margin of at least 10 points. Celtics-Nets was the only contest to be decided by fewer than 5.
If Game 1 is any indication, this series is going to be quite the ride.