About a half-hour after the first game-winning shot of his career had sent the Celtics to a 104-102 win over the Knicks on Friday, Jayson Tatum walked down a hall in the bowels of TD Garden and saw his friend and former teammate, Marcus Morris.
During Tatum’s first two NBA seasons, Morris had been a mentor. He shared advice and told Tatum what he could become and added in some friendly ribbing when it was appropriate.
Now, the two smiled and hugged, and Tatum couldn’t resist lobbing a little jab after he had provided the more crushing one on the court.
“I was hoping you wouldn’t switch off of me,” Tatum said, referring to that final shot.
“They knew I was going to switch,” Morris said with a chuckle. “That’s why you called the play.”
Morris had drilled a 3-pointer with 4.7 seconds left that tied the score at 102. After a timeout, he came back onto the court and shadowed Tatum at the other end.
But as Marcus Smart prepared to fire an inbounds pass, Gordon Hayward moved toward Tatum and set a screen on Morris. The Knicks had been switching on screens throughout the game — a shift that had flustered the Celtics at times — and this instance was no different. The rookie R.J. Barrett ended up on Tatum, who received the ball in the right corner, quickly squared up, took one hard dribble to his right and drilled a 20-footer that turned into the game-winner.
The Knicks were out of timeouts, and their long, baseball-style inbounds pass with 1.3 seconds left was batted away.
The Celtics were pleased that they had found a way to scrap for a win on a night in which they were hardly at their best. They also understood that Tatum’s big shot wouldn’t completely mask an uneven outing against one of the NBA’s worst teams, but they had not wilted.
“I think we’ve learned a lot about ourselves with our response and our ability to respond,” coach Brad Stevens said. “I’m excited about that. Whenever I’ve been a part of good teams, there’s a few clunkers every year, but more often than not, even on your bad nights you have a chance to win. I think that that’s usually a sign of a good team.”
Tatum’s response to his own shot, meanwhile, was pretty matter-of-fact. It was the first NBA game-winner of his career. He said he’d had one against Virginia during his lone season at Duke, but the details were a bit cloudy.
He was glad that his coaches and teammates had trusted him enough to take Friday’s final shot. But he was not going to do any cartwheels afterward.
“I don’t want to get too excited,” Tatum said. “The guys I look up to in this league, they do things like this all the time.”
Then he named one of those guys, who also happens to be his teammate, Kemba Walker. The All-Star point guard was sterling once again Friday, finishing with 33 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists. He is the first Celtic to have at least 30 points, 6 rebounds, and 4 assists in three consecutive games — all of which were Boston wins — since Paul Pierce did so in November 2002.
Walker made all 14 of his foul shots and is 28 of 29 over his last two games.
Despite those splashy numbers, Walker’s number was not called for the final shot. He lined up in the backcourt and was set to streak into the play as another option, but it was not the best one in this situation, and Walker was just fine with that.
“I’m happy [Tatum] got it,” Walker said. “It was the right play. Marcus made the right play. He had a smaller guy on him, and he just had great position . . . I probably would have took that a lot of times back in Charlotte, but yeah, I mean, I don’t mind. I like having other guys being able to take that shot.”
Tatum finished with 24 points for the Celtics, who were once again without Jaylen Brown (illness) and Enes Kanter (knee).
Morris, playing his first game in Boston since signing with the Knicks last summer, had 29 points and 9 rebounds. For a moment, it looked like his 3-pointer might send the game to overtime and give him a chance to win it later.
Instead, his former pupil had the final word. Morris said that he and Tatum had spoken about this matchup recently, and they were looking forward to the chance to tangle at TD Garden.
Thanks to a screen that both sort of wished had never arrived, they were separated on the final play. But there will be other opportunities. Morris, for one, is proud of the way Tatum is playing.
“He’s more patient, more calm, way more aggressive,” Morris said. “I told him when I was here, there’s only two people that can guard him in the league and I’m one of them. The other one is my brother. So I stand on that. The kid’s nice. I’ve been saying it since he got here.”
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.