PORTLAND, Ore. — On Sunday, the Celtics played a basketball game against LeBron James and the Lakers in front of a national television audience and a Hollywood-heavy courtside crew that included Denzel Washington, Eddie Murphy, and Bill Russell.
On Tuesday, they played again. This game was not on national television, Blazers superstar Damian Lillard did not even play, and the most notable sight away from the action was probably a small dog balancing on top of a basketball during halftime.
For the Celtics, it was essentially an invitation to let their guard down and hope for the best as this road trip nears its end. And when they went nearly three minutes without a point to start the game, it looked like perhaps the night would turn into a sleep-walk.
“We talked about how a resilient response is very important,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “Once you get into the playoffs, same way. You don’t want to go on losing streaks. You want to make sure that you’re able to make a 6-0 run 6-2. Not let it get to 12-0.”
In this case, a 7-0 deficit became 7-3. And it disappeared completely soon after that, as the Celtics ultimately rolled to a 118-106 win.
All-Star point guard Kemba Walker missed his third game in a row due to knee soreness, but fellow All-Star Jayson Tatum once again did more than enough to make up for his absence, adding another layer to the most scorching stretch of his three-year career.
The forward made 14 of 22 shots, a career-high 8 of 12 3-pointers and poured in a game-high 36 points. Boston outscored Portland by 22 points during Tatum’s 34 minutes on the court.
“Right now he’s playing unreal,” Celtics forward Jaylen Brown said. “He’s playing the best ball of his career. So let’s keep going. Let’s see how we can keep feeding it to him.”
Tatum has scored at least 28 points in four consecutive games, the only loss in that stretch being the two-point near miss against the Lakers on Sunday. During this run he has had spurts in which he has singlehandedly flattened opponents.
On Tuesday there was the first-quarter sequence when he had a dunk and two 3-pointers in less than two minutes, and the fourth-quarter flurry in which he drilled a tough step-back 3-pointer, hit a mid-range fadeaway, and sized up Blazers center Hassan Whiteside before pouring in a 30-footer over his outstretched arm, all over a span of 1:51. That last dagger gave Boston a 98-79 lead that was not in danger again.
“The first few looks that he had were off of screens and the screener did a good job of going and getting him open,” Stevens said. “And then the first two looks he had in the second half been wide open corner 3s where someone else made a play for him.”
After the game, Tatum credited center Daniel Theis for constantly setting powerful screens that allow him to find so much room to operate. He smiled and said he’ll have to buy Theis a nice watch for his upcoming birthday.
Tatum’s workload was also lightened a bit by Brown, his rising sidekick who chipped in with 24 points and 7 rebounds. The Celtics made 19 of 39 3-pointers overall, tied for the second highest percentage in team history (48.7) in a game with at least 19 3-pointers.
Brown, who connected on 3 of 7 shots from beyond the arc, was asked whether his team was just finding seams in the defense or latching onto a hot streak.
“A little bit of both,” he said, although Portland’s inconsistent effort pointed a bit more toward the former.
With the Raptors’ loss to the Bucks on Tuesday, the Celtics are now just one and a half games behind second-place Toronto with 25 games left in the regular season. Given the fact that the top six teams in the East are a clear step above the rest of the conference, and homecourt could be on the line in a potential second-round matchup between these two, this race will have great importance down the stretch.
But it will be a challenge for the Celtics not to give this game right back. The team flew to Salt Lake City immediately after Tuesday’s game in advance of Wednesday’s matchup against the well-rested and quite talented Jazz. It’s unclear whether Walker will be cleared to play in that one and it will be a tough task even if he is.
“They’ve got some great players over there, some real experienced, veteran players,” Brown said. “So we’ve got to come out and be disciplined, be sound and play well and be poised.”