After the Celtics were rocked by the Warriors in San Francisco last month, they acknowledged they had played as if they were seeking revenge for their Finals loss rather than simply approaching it for what it was.
They had roared to the top of the NBA and then had a relapse in which they allowed old, concerning habits to creep in. On Thursday, before facing Golden State at TD Garden, they talked about entering the night with a different mindset.
“The fact of the matter is we lost; we lost the championship,” forward Jayson Tatum said. “No one win can bring that back. We can’t go back and change that. So we didn’t look at this as a rematch of the Finals. It’s just one game against a great team with great players and obviously a great coach. But it was just one game.”
Then the game began, and those pep talks and maxims appeared to be wiped away. The sight of these Warriors seemed to give the Celtics post-traumatic stress.
Never mind that Golden State was just 5-17 on the road this season. Never mind that it is scuffling just to get in playoff position. The fact remained that this was the Warriors’ first time in this building since celebrating a championship on this court last June, and all of it left the Celtics looking tense and uneasy.
But this time, Boston regrouped before it was too late and turned the night into something useful during this season that appears increasingly destined for something big.
The Celtics overcame a 9-point fourth-quarter deficit, and Jaylen Brown’s 3-pointer with 18 seconds left in regulation helped send the game to overtime before Boston overpowered the Warriors in the extra session and held on for a 121-118 win, its eighth in a row.
“It’s one game,” Celtics guard Marcus Smart said, “but this game’s always going to mean a lot, especially because we were right there last year, and it could’ve been us. It’s always going to mean a lot. Yes, it’s one game, but it was a game that we needed to win for a multitude of reasons, and one [is that] it’s just for us.”
Tatum made just 9 of 27 shots and had seven turnovers, but he played the entire second, third and fourth quarters, as well as overtime, eventually finishing with 34 points and 19 rebounds in 48 minutes.
He said that he was surprised when coach Joe Mazzulla kept him in during his usual rest time at the start of the fourth quarter, and that Mazzulla asked him early in the fourth if he wanted a breather, but Tatum made it clear that when that decision is in his hands, the answer will be no.
Regardless, this massive workload was one a primary indicator that the Celtics did, in fact, value this game more than those that preceded it. Maybe Mazzulla wanted them to get over this mental hurdle. Maybe they were just caught up in the moment.
“I just feel like that’s what the game needed at the time,” Mazzulla said of Tatum’s lengthy run. “I felt like we were in a good spot. I felt like he was in a good spot.”
The Celtics used last season’s starting lineup for the first time this year, with Derrick White replaced by Robert Williams. And going against a smaller Warriors lineup that featured guard Jordan Poole in place of center Kevon Looney, Al Horford set the tone with his physicality early and finished with 20 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocked shots.
The Celtics made 39.8 percent of their shots overall, their first win this season when being held below 40 percent.
Stephen Curry had 29 points to lead Golden State, boosted by a demoralizing buzzer-beater from five feet beyond midcourt after a Celtics turnover just before halftime. But he was just 5 for 17 on more conventional 3-pointers.
Despite the Celtics’ poor shooting, they lingered throughout the second half. And with Boston trailing, 97-89, Malcolm Brogdon hit a 3-pointer to ignite a quick 7-0 burst. But the Warriors pushed back the Celtics with a Draymond Green 3-pointer, and Tatum made three costly turnovers in the final few minutes.
After Horford hit a 3-pointer with 1:30 left in the fourth to pull Boston within 104-103, he blocked Poole’s shot at the other end. But Tatum had the ball knocked away and a Curry layup gave the Warriors a 106-103 lead with 28 seconds left.
At the other end Brown, who struggled all night in his return after missing three games with an adductor strain, hit a deep 3-pointer from the right corner with 18.1 seconds left, Curry’s deep 3-pointer in the final seconds was not close, leading to overtime.
“I’m more of a guy that’s like, can we operate in the chaos?” Mazzulla said. “Can you make a mistake? And then how quickly can you bounce back from it? Because it’s going to happen.”
After Curry’s 3-pointer with 2:42 left in the extra session gave Golden State a 111-110 lead, the Celtics answered with the game-defining run. Brown hit a runner, Horford drilled a 3-pointer from the right corner, and after Poole was blocked, Tatum pulled up for a 3-pointer that made it 118-111.
The game appeared over before Horford fouled Wiggins on a 3-pointer with 37.2 seconds left with Boston holding an 8-point lead. Wiggins made two of three free throws and the Warriors got a Donte DiVincenzo 3-pointer after a steal, making it 121-118. After Horford missed a jumper, the Warriors got the ball back with three seconds left. But they were out of timeouts and Poole’s halfcourt shot at the buzzer was not close.
“It just felt like a high-level basketball game with two really, really good teams throwing haymakers at each other,” Mazzulla said. “And I think once you get into that situation, your situation is like ‘All right, well, we might as well, might as well do it.’”