After his team closed the calendar year with a 108-105 win over the Nets on Sunday, 19-year-old forward Jayson Tatum stood quietly at his locker and put on a glitzy tuxedo. It was an appropriate look, as Tatum and the Celtics had plenty to celebrate from their first half of this season.
They have now played a league-high 40 games, and they have surged to the top of the Eastern Conference by winning 30 of them. But they also know they have not accomplished anything of substance just yet.
“It’s a new year,” forward Jaylen Brown said. “Everyone starts 0-0. Coming into the next part of the year, it’s like everyone is starting all over again.”
For the Celtics, perhaps there is no greater reminder of that truth than the fact that they open 2018 with Wednesday’s game against LeBron James and the Cavaliers.
“Really tough task, obviously,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “They’ve had everybody’s number in the East for a couple of years now, and we’re amongst that list.”
There is a chance former Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas could make his season debut in that game, although that possibility now seems increasingly unlikely. Thomas, who was part of the package the Celtics sent to the Cavs last summer in exchange for Kyrie Irving, has been sidelined with a hip injury all year. Although he is nearing a return, Cavs coach Tyronn Lue has said he will not play Thomas in games on back-to-back nights, and the Cavs face the Blazers on Tuesday.
Nevertheless, Thomas’s return to Boston figures to be emotional.
“That guy put on some performances, epic performances for the city of Boston what he gave on a consistent basis,” Irving said. “You were just wondering how that tough-nosed [expletive] was just getting it done every single night and demanding from his teammates and playing with an edge that really cemented himself as a premier player in this league. And you’re just nothing short of happy for a guy like that. And whether or not he plays, it’s going to be nothing but love for him from Boston.”
The Cavs and Celtics last met Oct. 17 in the season opener in Cleveland, a game that was marred by Gordon Hayward’s grisly ankle injury. But both teams have evolved considerably since then and reestablished themselves as the class of the conference.
“We owe them one,” Celtics forward Marcus Morris said. “[They] beat us there, but it’s going to be a good game. I’m very excited. A lot of energy. The crowd is going to be on.”
The Celtics on Sunday entered a game with more than one day of rest for the first time since Nov. 29. Their unforgiving schedule has left them no time to practice and minimal time to sleep.
At the start of this game against the Nets, it looked as if the extra rest helped, but this pesky Brooklyn team is not the pushover that it once was, and the Celtics needed to hold off a late rally.
Boston led by as many as 14 points in the second half, but Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s layup and 3-point play pulled Brooklyn within 103-98 with 2 minutes, 5 seconds left.
The Nets still trailed by 5 when Irving missed a jumper with 47 seconds left. The Nets then gathered two offensive rebounds before Quincy Acy buried an open 3-pointer to pull them within 105-103 with 16.7 seconds left.
“They’re a team that’s not going to give up,” Celtics guard Terry Rozier said. “They’ve got a lot of shooters, which opens up a lot for them. They use it to their advantage.”
Marcus Smart was fouled on an inbounds pass, but he made just one of two free throws, giving Brooklyn a chance to tie. Spencer Dinwiddie took the ensuing sideline inbounds pass and quickly fired a 29-foot 3-pointer, but it was not close.
The Celtics gathered the rebound and then dashed Brooklyn’s hopes with a pair of Irving free throws with 7.7 seconds left.
“We’ve just got to close out better,” Irving said.
Irving had 28 points and eight rebounds to lead the Celtics. Al Horford added 10 points and 10 rebounds for Boston, and Brown had 13 points in his return after missing two games with a sore knee. Hollis-Jefferson had 22 points and 12 rebounds to pace Brooklyn.
Watch Marcus Smart feed Al Horford for a dunk
In recent years, the Celtics’ games against the Nets have been set against a backdrop of draft picks. The 2013 trade that sent Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce to Brooklyn resulted in Boston getting a total of four first-round picks in return. So games against the Nets offered the chance for Boston to advance in the standings while also helping their future draft position.
Now, the final draft pick from that trade belongs to the Cavaliers, via last summer’s Irving trade. So the Celtics are actually hoping for the Nets to be good, except on the nights they face them.
Boston got off to a blistering start, making 12 of its first 16 shots. A 3-pointer by Marcus Morris at the 3:46 mark gave Boston its largest lead of the quarter, 27-14.
When Terry Rozier hit a 3 to make it 43-30, Boston had made 18 of 25 shots.
But the Celtics allowed the Nets to linger due to some carelessness. Boston committed 10 first-half turnovers, and the Nets consistently powered into the lane for easy baskets. Joe Harris capped a 9-0 Brooklyn run with a driving layup that pulled the Nets within 43-39.
Brooklyn took its first lead, 63-61, on a runner by DeMarre Carroll just over two minutes into the third quarter. But the Nets’ stay in front was brief as the Celtics tied the score 21 seconds later. They would not trail again, even though the end had some uneasy moments.