BOSTON — Paul Pierce recognized what afflicted the Celtics through recent losses to Orlando, Miami and New York before he arrived on Causeway Street for the week’s signature game against the Lakers. ABC cameras don’t show up to Monday night games at the Magic.
Even Pierce’s title-contending Celtics teams, mythologized by time and their ring, struggled to show up to some regular season games, but managed to win 80% of them on their way to the 2008 championship. This year, Boston had won 70% of its first 50 games before Saturday’s classic victory. One they badly needed.
“When you play in these long 82-game seasons, you can get bored at times,” Pierce told CLNS Media at his Bushmills Irish Whiskey pre-game event near TD Garden. “Their goal is on the championship, so I know they’re like, ‘we can’t wait for the playoffs,’ but the one thing I’ll tell them, and I continue to say this … they can’t get bored with the process to get back to where they need to go … they can’t get bored with the regular season. They’ve got to play each and every night, build up until they get to the playoffs and keep chopping wood. That tree’s gonna fall eventually, but they can’t get bored with the process.”
The Celtics returned to that process late in their 125-121 overtime win over the Lakers, shaking off early turnovers, three-point misses and offensive stagnancy to run a set for Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum off-ball. Joe Mazzulla credited Tatum for initiating the horns action while Malcolm Brogdon dribbled above the arc, finding Tatum spinning downhill for a wide open layup to go ahead by five points midway through overtime. Brown iced the game three possessions later, hitting a jumper from mid-range, then a pair of free throws.
The crowd, including Pierce, roared when Brown sunk a game-tying free throw in contrast to his pair of misses that cost the Celtics Thursday’s loss against the Knicks in the final seconds of overtime. Brown followed an errant Al Horford three-point attempt that crashed off the backboard and fell into his hands. Dennis Schröder raised his hand, taking blame for not boxing out.
The Lakers turned their attention toward the officiating soon after, with LeBron James barreling past Tatum and missing a layup crew chief Eric Lewis admitted James got fouled on. James leaped along the sideline, bent over near the free throw line and crouched in shock. Patrick Beverley drew a technical foul by borrowing a photographer’s camera to show Lewis the play. If Brown boxed him out, Boston wouldn’t have needed the break.
“The last two minutes and overtime was a blur,” Tatum said, smiling. “Everything was just happening so fast, but we moved on and got the win. That’s all I got to say about that.”
Tatum knew he and Boston narrowly escaped. Malcolm Brogdon said the Celtics needed the win after their three-game losing streak, and he bailed Tatum out with 26 points on 8-for-15 shooting while Tatum started 2-for-9 and missed a pair of early three-point tries. Brown fouled five times before the midway point in the fourth quarter. Mazzulla thrust him back into action for playoff-like minutes anyway. He joked to CLNS Media pre-game that the key to reducing Tatum’s minutes would be avoiding overtime. Not tonight.
Brown and Tatum, who each scored 30 points for the 20th time in their career together (19-1 record), found other ways to contribute when their shots didn’t fall because the Lakers’ defense attacked their air space. Brown finished 4-of-5 inside to start and missed 4-of-5 from three. Tatum tried to spread the ball around, but didn’t record an assist until nearly halftime and forced an ugly miss leaning into Anthony Davis’ body. The ball landed in his and Brown’s hands often with Marcus Smart out, another factor destabilizing Boston’s offense through its slump that peaked against New York. Pierce, nonetheless, believes in this group and Tatum’s leadership.
“You look at what they were able to accomplish last year, getting to the Finals, in my opinion, they should’ve won and I think it’s made them a little more hungry,” Pierce told CLNS. “They come into this season with a chip on their shoulder, they look like they’re ready to take that next step, and whoever they play, or if they get to the Finals, whoever they play, I think they’ll be ready just going through that experience last year … at this pace, (Tatum) could end up the greatest Celtic to ever put on that uniform. I’m telling you. That’s what I see; he’s got that type of potential.”
The Celtics fell behind by 11 points into the third quarter after James rained threes and flushed a breakout dunk on a 12-2 Lakers run. Tatum answered with a pair of threes, and Mazzulla’s pre-game point about his and Brown’s volume of three-pointers increasing played out. The Celtics improved from shooting 21% in the first half from three to 32.5% by the end of the game, while the Lakers sunk below 30% all night, weighed down by shots the Celtics dared Russell Westbrook to take.
Tatum continued to play poorly into the fourth, putting back his own miss, turning the ball over and missing a layup and three-pointer. He successfully differed to Brown though and set himself up for the key basket with a crafty play call he’d practiced with his teammate.
Pierce still sees an MVP path for Tatum despite Nikola Jokic’s emergence as the favorite. Even in his worst game, Tatum committed to the habits necessary to claim the more important trophy.
“I’m seeing (Tatum’s) game mature right before our eyes,” Pierce said. “He’s a lot stronger, he’s playing with a lot more confidence, the way he’s passing the ball, he’s doing a better job getting to the free throw line, he’s rebounding the ball at a high level. I already know what he’s doing as a scorer. If he can continue to play like this, sky’s the limit for him. He should be able to bring home that MVP trophy. More importantly, he’d rather bring home a championship than a MVP trophy.”