Jayson Tatum had just ripped through the lane for a powerful two-handed dunk that helped push back a mildly concerning Mavericks rally. Now the other MVP candidate in this game, Mavericks star Luka Doncic, was hoping to do something similar.
With Tatum crouched in front of him and just over two minutes remaining, Doncic rumbled toward the rim. But as he rose for a finger-roll layup, Tatum used his right hand to swat the ball off the backboard. Forward Al Horford said he could tell before tip-off that this TD Garden holiday crowd had a different kind of energy, and here, it erupted.
High-voltage matchups involving two stars tend to be overhyped, because there are so many other players and variables that matter. But if the Celtics’ 125-112 win could be distilled down to one moment, it would be that Tatum block. It was loud and symbolic.
Tatum said he later told Doncic that he had to swat his shot so Doncic, who generally operates below the rim, did not dunk on him.
“He looked at me and was like, ‘You thought I was going to dunk it?’ ” Tatum said. “I was like, ‘You never know.’ ”
For Tatum and Doncic, the game mostly mirrored their places in the MVP race that remains in its infant stages. Doncic’s performance was slightly superior for most of the night. But Tatum was excellent, continued to have more team success, and when his team needed him to finish off a win, he was there.
He made 11 of 24 shots and had 37 points and 13 rebounds. Doncic was 17 for 28 from the field and had 42, 9 assists, and 8 rebounds.
“He’s an amazing player,” Doncic said of Tatum. “He’s top 10, in the MVP [race]. He’s shown he’s not a future face of the league, but he already is.”
Tatum had been listed as questionable due to ankle soreness. After the game, Jaylen Brown sat at the dais and chuckled at anyone who thought there was actually a chance Tatum would sit.
“JB’s probably right,” Tatum later quipped.
As good as Tatum was, the Celtics have reached this point because they are so much more. Brown poured in 31 points. Al Horford, who was 0 for 9 in Monday’s loss to the Bulls, hit a 3-pointer on the Celtics’ first play, which was drawn up for him, and finished 5 for 5 from the field. Marcus Smart chipped in 13 points and nine assists.
Last season, the Celtics were excellent at shrugging off one frustrating loss before it could swell into something more, and they’ve shown similar characteristics this year. They were lethargic during their setback against the Bulls. That did not last.
“We talk a lot about [how] great teams stay the best version of themselves for longer periods of time,” Smart said. “When they don’t, they bounce back quickly. So you’re not going to play perfect every single night, but it’s a matter of how you handle it.”
The Celtics have relied heavily on 3-pointers while constructing the NBA’s most dominant offense, but they seized control of this game using a different formula. With Tatum and Brown leading the way, and no fearsome rim protectors there to slow them, they attacked time and again.
Midway through the first quarter they’d registered 16 points in the paint, and the Mavericks had just 14 total. Twenty-one of Brown and Tatum’s first 26 shots combined were 2-pointers.
“We shot the ones we were supposed to [shoot] and we made the right decision at the rim 75 to 80 percent of the time,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said.
This approach helped loosen the Mavericks’ perimeter defense, and the Celtics ended up shooting 17 of 34 from the 3-point line.
The Celtics led by 11 points after the first quarter, 21 after the second, and 27 late in the third.
But Dallas gradually clawed back behind Doncic and Christian Wood (26 points), who created problems for Boston’s smaller defenders with his post-ups. Wood leaked into the paint for a dunk with 3:44 left that pulled Dallas within 114-105, its first single-digit deficit since the opening quarter.
But Tatum’s closing kick ensured that this mild comeback would be nothing more than a footnote.
“You can count on him to play every night,” Mazzulla said, “and so it’s great.”