These Celtics are not the same early-season team, and the final sequence against the Nets proves it

These Celtics didn’t buckle. They didn’t bark, at each other or the whistle-happy officials. They remained focused, relentless, and resilient.

Coach Ime Udoka and star Jayson Tatum have played a big part in the Celtics' turnaround. AP Photo/Steven Senne

For much of the fourth quarter Sunday, the Celtics gave us an unwelcome flashback to what they used to be, and what we hoped they never would be again.

After building a 15-point third-quarter lead in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference first-round playoff series against Kevin Durant, dastardly Kyrie Irving, and the Brooklyn Nets, their advantage almost immediately evaporated in the fourth. The Nets went on a 15-2 run, seized the lead behind Irving’s extraordinary, exasperating shot-making, and led by 5 with 5½ minutes left.

It felt like the worst-case scenario was unfolding. Irving, who should never be forgiven for petulantly, pathetically quitting on the Celtics in the ‘19 postseason, played the game with a twisted vengeance, as if he was the one who had been wronged, scoring 39 points and picking up the slack for Durant, who had a rare chilly shooting night.

The Celtics’ sudden ineptitude on offense, some misguided decisions on defense, and the big fourth-quarter lead rapidly lost were reminiscent of their disjointed start to the season, when no late lead was safe and they won just 18 of their first 39 games.


But these Celtics didn’t buckle. They didn’t bark, at each other or the whistle-happy officials. They remained focused, relentless, and resilient.

They confirmed that the team that went 28-7 to close the season, the team that didn’t back down from seizing the No. 2 seed and a matchup with the dangerous Nets, the team that had won over its fans by listening to unflappable first-year coach Ime Udoka and learning to do the right thing at the right time … well, they confirmed all of that in the tense, thrilling opener, and this too: The version of this Celtics team that turned everything around in February is exactly who they are now.

So what if it took them to the final play to do it? Is there a better time to prove your mettle than in a sequence that separates the winner from the loser? The 15 or so seconds of this game proved an impossible-to-miss microcosm of why this team became worthy of both admiration and trust in the season’s second half.

It started with Jaylen Brown — bloodied like he’d gone a round with vintage Marvin Hagler — having the awareness to accelerate in for a quick layup with 39 seconds left, cutting the Nets’ lead to 114-113 and assuring the Celtics would get the ball back.


Then Marcus Smart, aided by marvelous help defense from Al Horford, prevented Irving from attempting the dagger 3 he surely wanted to take, a metaphorical middle-finger to Celtics fans after he’d flashed the actual digit during the game. (Irving has rabbit ears, but the fans’ chirping also seems to fuel him to play better. I’m not sure what the approach should be going forward.) He passed off to Durant, who back-rimmed a contested 3, with Horford hauling down his 15th and final rebound.

Horford was the first of the five Celtics on the court to touch the ball on a final series of decisions that ought to make any skeptics believe in them in the way they clearly believe in themselves. With 12 seconds left, he passed to Derrick White, who pushed it ahead to Jaylen Brown. Udoka could have called a timeout. Instead, he trusted his players.

“I tell the guys all the time, we have an advantageous position we’re in, so I won’t call a timeout,’’ he explained afterward. “If I don’t like what I see, I’ll call it then. But as you know, teams will get matched up with the lineups they want in the game [during a timeout]. Jaylen had [Goran] Dragic on him, drove, drew three people on him, kicked it to Marcus, he drove past two, and we got a wide-open shot.”


That’s all factually correct from the coach, but it doesn’t do justice to the decision-making under pressure. Brown found Smart on the opposite end of the court. A year ago, perhaps months ago — anyone familiar with his modus operandi knows what would have happened in that situation: He would have shot it. Maybe he would have made it. But Smart, who has been emboldened by Udoka to run the offense as a true point guard, instead made the right decision. He up-faked a pair of Nets into the Garden rafters, and … hey, you take it from here, Marcus:

“I’ve always been told that you have more time than you realize you have,’’ said Smart, who finished with 20 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists while chasing Irving all over the court. “When I caught the ball, I was open and I was going to shoot it, and then I [saw] two guys fly at me, so I take a pump fake. Actually I was about to throw it to Al off the dribble, and then I see J.T. [Jayson Tatum] cut at the last minute.”

He saw him, all right, because he had more time than we realized. Smart required great poise to make the pass, and Tatum, who made the selfless play every time it presented itself and still finished with 31 points, showed breathtaking grace under pressure, the kind possessed only by superstars, in spinning past Irving and banking in the winning layup at the buzzer.


Now, of course Celtics fans would be feeling much differently today had the last play not materialized as one that we will be seeing on highlight films for as long as the franchise exists. The hard-earned lead escaped their grip. Irving nearly stole the game, and perhaps with it, he might have seized some of their confidence. The Celtics’ advantage is supposed to be its depth, but White, Grant Williams, and Payton Pritchard didn’t do much, and Daniel Theis fumbled the ball so much he was giving me Shelden Williams flashbacks.

They need to be better in Game 2 Wednesday. Chances are they will be. After all, these Celtics, this unified, likable, tough team that found its identity three months ago, know how to get the best out of each other. Even if it requires a sensational final sequence to do it.


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