Best of the Decade: Celtics' five greatest single-game performances

Best of the Decade: Celtics' five greatest single-game performances

BOSTON — As we continue to look at the best of the Boston Celtics this past decade, we turn our attention now to the best individual performances. 

There were a ton of options to choose from when putting this list together, like Terry Rozier's 26-point, nine-assist performance in Boston's Game 7 win over Milwaukee in 2018; or Glen “Big Baby” Davis’ 18-point performance in Game 4 of the 2010 NBA Finals that evened the series with the Los Angeles Lakers at 2-2, but also featured one of the more memorable moments of the past decade: Davis carrying Nate Robinson on his back following a Davis put-back basket. 

But what separated these five choices goes beyond the individuals having good games. 

There was something about their play that went beyond a good performance in an important game. 

They each elevated their play in a way that not only stood out at that moment, but has since stood the test of time because of its impact on the franchise or in the case of a couple on the list, their legacy as future Hall of Famers. 

5. Paul Pierce, Dec. 19, 2012 vs. Cleveland

The idea of having an all-Decades list of great performances by the Celtics and not having Paul Pierce on the list just didn’t feel right, even if most of his best performances came prior to 2010.

However, there was one night in the winter of 2012, his last season with Boston, when Pierce had a Hot Tub Time Machine moment and absolutely shredded the Kyrie Irving-led Cleveland Cavaliers to pieces. 

Pierce would finish with 40 points, his last 40-point game for Boston. What made the game stand out besides the points, was that he did it on 13-for-16 shooting which was the most efficient game Pierce had ever played and for one day, served as a reminder of what fans in Boston were blessed with seeing for more than a decade.

4. Kevin Garnett, Game 6, first round vs Atlanta (2012)

This was an elimination game for the Celtics, who held a 3-2 series lead after having lost an 87-86 nail-biter in Game 5 to the Atlanta Hawks. The last thing the Celtics wanted to do was get into a Game 7, winner-take-all scenario against an Atlanta team which had the fourth-best record in the East at home during the lockout-shortened season which was limited to 66 games played. 

It wasn’t Kevin Garnett’s best game as a Celtic, but on this night he was far and away Boston’s best player. Big shots, key plays defensively and dominance on the glass highlighted one of the last in a long line of many great performances by the future Hall of Famer. 

Garnett had a double-double of 28 points on 10-for-19 shooting, to go with 14 rebounds. He also racked up three steals, two assists and a game-high five blocked shots. 

But most importantly, he delivered when the stakes were high, which was a reminder to all that despite being near the end of his career, he too could still come up big when it mattered.

3. Kelly Olynyk, Game 7, Eastern Conference Semifinals (2017)

Of all the big-game performances we have seen this past decade in Boston, there may not have been a bigger surprise than the performance delivered by Kelly Olynyk in the decisive Game 7 of the Celtics' second-round series against Washington.

And remember, this was the series that provided the foundation for the short-lived Boston-Washington rivalry that included a bit of a kerfuffle between Olynyk and then-Wizards forward Kelly Oubre, Jr. 

Just as Oubre Jr. delivered an unexpected cheap shot to Olynyk in Game 3 of that series, Olynyk in turn delivered a few costly shots to Washington — mostly lay-ups and 3-pointers — in the decisive seventh game that ended with Olynyk scoring 26 points in just 28 minutes.

To put that in perspecive, Olynyk had scored 26 points in the three previous games combined. The big scoring game in the most pivotal game of the season not only earned the Celtics the win but just as importantly (for Olynyk anyway), it put him on the path towards a mega payday of $50 million over four years with the Miami Heat and will probably get him a free drink in New England by uttering the magic words “Game Seven.” 

2. Rajon Rondo, Game 4, Eastern Conference Semifinals (2010)

We have seen “Playoff” Rajon Rondo do his thing in recent years with the Chicago Bulls and the New Orleans Pelicans. But there’s nothing that compares to “Playoff” Rondo when he was with the Boston Celtics. 

He delivered repeatedly in the postseason, but few performances stand out like his Game 5 performance in the 2010 conference semifinals against the Cleveland Cavaliers. 

Rondo absolutely dominated the game in all phases of play, something you rarely see when LeBron James is playing. 

And the timing of Rondo’s big game was what made it stand out. Boston went into Game 4 facing a 2-1 series deficit, so the C's needed a win to avoid heading back to Cleveland facing elimination. 

Rondo finished with a triple-double of 29 points, 18 rebounds and 13 assists. 

It was indeed a historic performance by Rondo, who posted playoff numbers that night that had only been achieved by two others before him — Oscar Robertson and Wilt Chamberlain. 

Boston not only went on to win the series, but they would advance to the NBA Finals where they lost in seven games to the Los Angeles Lakers.

1. Isaiah Thomas, Game 2 Eastern Conference Semifinals (2017)

Players often go into the playoffs with an increased pressure to perform, but few go in coping with the kind of emotional turmoil and pain Isaiah Thomas was feeling in 2017. 

His sister Chyna died shortly before the playoffs began and Game 2 of the series with Washington fell on what would have been Chyna’s 23rd birthday. 

Thomas honored her memory with what will be remembered around these parts as one of the greatest individual performances ever put on by a Boston Celtic, leading the team to a 129-119 overtime win while scoring a career-high 53 points. 

“I was just so locked in that fourth quarter and overtime because I wanted to win the game so bad that I really didn’t know what I had (point-wise),”  said Thomas, who scored 29 points in the fourth quarter and overtime session. “I just knew that I had to keep being aggressive.”

And in doing so, he etched his name into the history books with the second-highest point total by a Celtic in a playoff game (John Havlicek, 54 points, April 1, 1973). 

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Heat, which tips off Wednesday at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Tommy & Mike have the call at 7:30 p.m. You can also stream the game on the MyTeams App.

Classic Celtics: C's outlast Michael Jordan's Bulls in 1986 playoff thriller

Classic Celtics: C's outlast Michael Jordan's Bulls in 1986 playoff thriller

Want to witness one of the greatest individual performances in NBA history? Just tune into NBC Sports Boston on Sunday night.

Our "Classic Celtics" series -- which featured Game 6 of the 2008 NBA Finals on Friday night -- continues Sunday with a throwback: Game 2 of Boston's 1986 NBA playoffs first-round series with the Chicago Bulls.

That April 20, 1986, game at TD Garden was a defining moment for then-23-year-old Michael Jordan, who went off for an NBA postseason-record 63 points.

But Celtics fans can appreciate Jordan's masterful performance knowing that Boston outlasted Chicago 135-131 in double overtime and swept the series en route to an eventual NBA title.

The broadcast begins Sunday at 7 p.m. ET, and as an added bonus, Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge -- who scored 24 points in this game while defending Jordan -- will join Brian Scalabrine to provide real-time commentary throughout the game.

Other reasons to watch:

- A vintage performance from Celtics star Larry Bird, who scored a team-high 36 points to go along with 12 rebounds and eight assists.

- The 1980s Celtics at their peak: Bird, Ainge, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson and Bill Walton all scored double figures.

- Jordan hitting two free throws in the final seconds of regulation to force the first overtime.

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NBA Rumors: Execs expect Gordon Hayward to opt in to $34 million Celtics contract

NBA Rumors: Execs expect Gordon Hayward to opt in to $34 million Celtics contract

Gordon Hayward was enjoying his best season as a Boston Celtic before the 2019-20 season came to a screeching halt due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Through 45 games, the 30-year-old forward was averaging 17.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists while shooting 59.3 percent from the field. Hayward's performance was setting himself up for a solid contract if he were to opt out of his contract and hit free agency this summer.

That scenario doesn't appear likely, however.

According to Heavy.com, NBA executives expect Hayward to exercise his $34 million player option.

'It’s too much money to pass up,' one general manager told Heavy.com. 'He could get a longer deal if that is what he really wants. But I don’t think the Celtics want to give it to him, they have a lot of young guys to pay and the starting (salary) number on whatever the contract is will not be close to $34 million. He can opt in this year and then take a big contract next year. When you look at what he has done since his injury, he has only gotten better. He could get better next year and be ready for the summer of 2021.'

That doesn't exactly come as a surprise. Hayward may get a nice contract if he were to hit the open market this year, but it certainly wouldn't be anywhere near that eye-popping $34 million figure.

It makes far more sense for Hayward to take his money and test the market in 2021 if he and the Celtics don't agree on an extension before then. The 2021 free agent class will be much deeper, and teams will have more cap space to give Hayward a sizable long-term deal. That is, if he can duplicate the kind of success he's enjoyed so far this season.