As the Celtics huddled during a timeout, trailing the Knicks by two with 10 seconds left in the second overtime Sunday, there were plenty of options. One approach seemed most logical.
Boston was already without injured players Robert Williams and Malcolm Brogdon. Marcus Smart fouled out minutes earlier. Those left on the court appeared exhausted.
Yes, the Celtics could have tried to attack for a layup and prolonged the game, with no guarantee it would even end with a win. But with Monday night’s matchup in Cleveland against the Cavaliers looming, there appeared to be no reason to potentially turn one loss into two. The Celtics would go for it all.
Jayson Tatum was the obvious choice, but this was not new to the Knicks, who shaded two defenders in his direction as he began to drive. Tatum flicked a pass to Al Horford in the right corner. Horford was open, and he has been remarkably accurate from this range recently.
He fired over the outstretched arm of center Mitchell Robinson. It fell just short, allowing the Knicks to escape with a wild 131-129 win, their ninth in a row.
“I just think I rushed it a little bit,” Horford said. “And I probably had a little more time than I thought.”
When the shot bounced off the rim at the buzzer, Horford jumped up and down, then pulled his jersey over his face. The Knicks on the floor mostly looked too gassed to even celebrate. Most simply walked away quietly.
But guard Immanuel Quickley was an exception. He bounced around the court flashing a wide grin, and that seemed appropriate. Quickley played 55 minutes and tallied 38 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists, and 4 steals, and somehow appeared just as fresh at the end as he did at the beginning.
“That was all adrenaline,” he said. “I was exhausted.”
Regardless, until Knicks guard Josh Hart made two free throws with 1:21 left in the second overtime, Quickley had scored or assisted on all of his team’s points since the end of regulation.
For the Celtics, it was another frustrating end. Two nights after coughing up a 28-point lead and losing to the Nets, they gave up a 14-point third-quarter edge Sunday, although they also overcame an 11-point fourth-quarter deficit to extend the game and give themselves a chance.
Nevertheless, their play has been uneven since the All-Star break, and these NBA championship favorites now face questions about whether they are truly ready for what is to come later this spring. Much like after the Brooklyn loss, their level of concern did not seem especially high.
“Zero,” coach Joe Mazzulla said when he was asked about it.
Added guard Derrick White: “We’ve just got to get our swagger back, the way we play with each other and have fun out there. I’m sure we will get it back here soon.”
Tatum had 40 points to lead the Celtics, but made just 6 of 17 3-pointers, including 0 for 3 in the overtimes. Horford played 45 minutes, 44 seconds, and had 20 points and 14 rebounds. After the Celtics attempted a season-low 29 3-pointers Friday, Mazzulla said his team must strike more frequently from beyond the arc. It made 21 of 59 Sunday, setting a franchise record for attempts. But the most important one did not go in.
The Celtics unraveled in the third quarter. Quickley sparked a 19-2 run that stretched into the fourth, helping the Knicks to a 100-89 lead. But after he hit a 10-footer with 7:24 left, the Celtics’ defensive intensity increased and the Knicks went nearly five minutes without a field goal.
With the score tied at 104, the Knicks had a 7-0 burst, but Horford — whose 3-point shooting has lifted the Celtics in recent weeks — hit one from the left arc. After a pair of Celtics offensive rebounds, Smart added another with 19.3 seconds left that made it 111-110.
New York’s Julius Randle hit two free throws with 16.2 seconds left to stretch the Knicks’ lead back to 3. The Celtics went for a quick two, and it turned out even better when Jaylen Brown was fouled as he scored inside with 12.9 seconds left. He made the free throw, then knocked the ball away from Randle at the other end, forcing overtime.
The Celtics trailed by one late in the first overtime when Tatum found Horford in the right corner. His 3-pointer with 29.8 seconds left made it 121-119. Quickley tied the score with a runner with 13.1 seconds left. The Celtics elected not to call timeout, and Tatum left a shot from the right baseline short, leading to the second overtime.
Quickley scored his team’s first seven points of that session to help New York take a 128-123 lead. After Tatum pulled the Celtics within 131-129 with a layup, the Knicks committed a shot-clock violation with 22 seconds remaining.
Initially, the Celtics did not call a timeout, but Tatum and Grant Williams miscommunicated as Tatum tried to wave him to another area of the court. Sensing the disarray, Mazzulla called timeout with 10 seconds left. After the Knicks used a foul to burn some time, Tatum caught a pass in the backcourt, drove just inside the arc and found Horford.
He just couldn’t convert.
“We have to stay the course, and I feel like we’ll be fine,” Horford said. “But definitely it’s not pleasant to go through this right now.”