In a first-round game that had the hype and energy of the conference finals, the Celtics and Nets rose to new heights for a Game 1 in mid-April.
The unsavory tone remains unchanged, as evidenced by the middle finger Kyrie Irving flashed at a fan after hitting a corner 3-pointer in the third quarter after a night of blistering boos from his former, unerringly hateful home crowd.
The friction only made Irving stronger, obviously. But despite his 39 points, including an 18-point fourth and 6-for-10 3-point shooting, the Celtics took the series opener, courtesy of a buzzer-beating layup from Jayson Tatum for a 115-114 win.
The Garden erupted, naturally. Tatum, whose 31-point, eight-assist performance led an attack that found three other Celtics breaking the 20-point barrier, later called it the loudest he’s ever heard in this building, especially with the electric charge that shot through the crowd as the buzzer sounded.
And after a season that started so poorly and slowly, there really couldn’t have been another result.
“It was fulfilling for us, especially because of the way we started this year off, those types of games, we lost. We were probably crumbling,” said Marcus Smart. “And for a moment there, it kind of looked like that was the direction it was going.
“But the resilience that we have, the approach we have, and the work we put in to make sure that doesn’t happen,” said the Celtics point guard. “And you just learn. Unfortunately we had a lot of games to learn from with those types of incidents. So we just wanted to make sure that’s not how we were going down and everybody did their jobs and we did it to the best we could do it and everybody helped one another and we came out with the win.”
And everything about that last possession shows why the Celtics have advanced so far from the isolation-oriented, under-performing group of last December.
Irving, in Smart’s words “too comfortable” as the game went on, had just hit the last of four fourth quarter 3-pointers with 45.9 seconds left for a 114-111 lead. It wasn’t the first time one of Irving’s bombs triggered a Celtics timeout in the fourth — a timeout with 5:20 left was more spirited and frustrated — but this was the last.
The Celtics came out of the timeout with a Jaylen Brown drive that cut the Brooklyn lead to a point with 38.9 seconds left, and when Tatum pressured Kevin Durant into a 27-foot miss that fell short of the backup, Derrick White immediately drove up the floor, giving it up to Brown, who passed up a jumper.
Brown instead dished left to Smart, who passed up a semi-open jumper, split a double team, and dished to Tatum, who had spun off Irving for a backdoor cut, beating the buzzer. A year ago Smart most likely would have taken the shot. His teammates certainly thought that’s where he was headed.
“Honestly, I think we all thought Smart was going to shoot it,” said Tatum. “So last-second shot, just crash the glass. If it doesn’t go in, try to make a play. But when he took that dribble, we just kind of made eye contact and he made a great pass. I just had to make the layup.
“I think it just shows the progression of our team, how far we’ve come from Game 1. In those first two months, obviously we were average and we were struggling. And we’ve just been playing the right way these last couple of months. And that’s a reason why we’ve been so successful, especially in big moments. It’s all about just trying to make the right play.”
After leading by as many as 15 points in the third quarter, and trailing by as many as five in the fourth after the Nets opened the quarter with a 17-2 run, Smart simply maintained composure with the clock running down.
“First off you’ve got to credit Ime for trusting us in that situation with one timeout to just go,” said the point guard. “And you’ve got to give credit to JB pushing the pace, drawing four, and then making the right read.
“Then, of course, me, I’ve always been told you have more time than you realize you have. So when I caught the ball, if I was open, I was going to shoot it. And I seen two guys flying, so I took a pump fake, actually I was about to throw it to Al off the dribble and I saw JT cut at the last minute and just wanted to get the easiest shot we can, as close as we can to the basket. So, I found JT, he made a great play to get the ball off the glass and finish it before the game was over.”