Is there a bad win?
That’s what Boston Celtics interim coach Joe Mazzulla wondered out loud when asked to characterize his team’s eyesore of a victory over the Golden State Warriors on Thursday night.
Mazzulla likes to nitpick even the glitziest of wins, but you can understand his point. A win is a win is a win. Especially when it comes against a team that seemingly owned a whole bunch of real estate in his team’s head after last season’s Finals meeting.
It’s easier to play the "survive and advance" card in the postseason but ultimately, an ugly win is a whole lot better than what could have been a really ugly loss.
"You’re going to need games like this, right," said Jayson Tatum. "There’s going to be a handful of playoff games where you don’t necessarily shoot the ball well, maybe even on the road, under 40 percent, 73 percent from the free-throw line, 17 turnovers, and still find a way to win. I think that just shows the depth of our team that, on a below average night for us, we can still find a way to win.
"That’s all that matters at the end of the night. Did you win or did you lose?"
Here are eight thoughts on the Celtics after an unattractive win with the team now riding an eight-game winning streak:
Credit Jaylen Brown with the save
Brown hit a game-tying 3-pointer with 18.6 seconds to play in regulation to force the extra session, but his biggest play of the night might have been one that won’t even show up in the box score.
The Celtics couldn’t get out of their own way despite an eight-point lead with 37.2 seconds remaining in overtime. Al Horford, who was otherwise spectacular on this night, got whistled for a (questionable though upheld on video review) 3-point foul. Marcus Smart committed a backcourt turnover leading to a Donte DiVincenzo 3-pointer to make it a one-possession game with 30.4 seconds to play.
Then this happened …
With shades of Jakobi Meyers, Smart launched a pass to nowhere and Brown hurled himself -- and his injured groin -- into the scorer’s table to save another turnover.
The Warriors still got a last gasp but, because they had no timeouts remaining, had to settle for a mid-court heave rather than the better look a turnover might have generated.
Thank goodness for Robert Williams
The Celtics might have been down 20 at halftime if not for Robert Williams III's efforts. The big man, who missed the first meeting in Golden State while still rehabbing from offseason knee surgery, was all over the offensive glass as Boston’s half-court offense routinely sputtered.
Consider this: Boston’s offensive rebound rate was 44.4 percent when Williams III was on the court on Thursday night. It plummeted to 25.8 without him. For context, the Rockets lead the NBA while rebounding 33.7 percent of their misses; the Nets are last in the NBA at 22.4 percent.
This continues a theme for the Celtics. Boston’s offensive rebound rate for the season is 34.2 percent with Williams III on the court. It’s 23.9 without him.
As Boston’s 3-point shooting has cooled from the start of the year, Williams III’s rebounding rate has been a huge reason the team’s offense has remained elite.
Brown keeps up with Steph Curry
In his first game back after missing more than a week with a groin injury, the Celtics dispatched Brown to chase Curry around for much of Thursday’s game.
"S---, that was a perfect way for me to make my introduction back into the lineup," said Brown. "They started me on Curry and challenged me to be ready to chase him around. Just to give him a different look."
Brown defended Curry for a team-high 40.5 percent of the former MVP's floor time, per the NBA’s stat tracking. Curry was 0-for-2 shooting when Brown was the primary defender, though Brown committed two shooting fouls leading to three points.
Smart was the primary defender on most of Curry’s shot attempts. Curry was 1-of-7 shooting for just 2 points when defended by Smart, per the NBA’s tracking.
Tatum subbed out of the game with 4:53 remaining in the first quarter and rested until the finish line of the frame. He did not come out of the game again.
And you thought Ime Udoka leaned heavy on his core players.
Mazzulla played Tatum a whopping 48 minutes, including the final 41 minutes of action. If you needed an indication of just how badly the Celtics wanted to win this game, that about sums it up.
It’s simple math. The Celtics are +309 in plus/minus with Tatum on the court this season. They are minus-15 without him. Ride him for 77.3 percent of game action and chances are the Celtics are winning that game.
Tatum had some bad fourth-quarter turnovers that nearly prevented Boston’s comeback. But he deserves credit for grinding on a night where his shot wasn’t falling.
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He also finally admitted that he might have downplayed the first Golden State meeting when he suggested that reporters were making a bigger deal of the game than the players.
"I think the first time we played them in San Francisco, I felt like we bought into that rematch of the Finals, ABC game, first time back since we lost. Everybody wanted to win so bad, and I think that was the first time all season that we played out of character, that we played tense," said Tatum. "And we just kind of talked about it [Thursday] like, the fact of the matter is we lost. We lost the championship. No one win can bring that back. We can’t go back and change that.
"So we didn’t look at this as a rematch of the Finals. It’s just one game against a great team with great players and obviously a great coach. But it was just one game. Whether we won or lost tonight, we didn’t celebrate or hang a banner or anything; we still got a game on Saturday.
"So I think just coming in with that mindset of, January 19, it’s a Thursday and we’re playing against a really good team. No rematch of the Finals or anything like that. Not make it bigger than anything that it is. It’s one game. They all count as one. And I think we learned from that earlier in December, playing against them, and just came out a little bit more relaxed today than the first time."
The Celtics’ play suggested they still were a little more tense than usual, but sticking with the theme here, at least they found a way to win despite the emotions this time around.
We also wouldn’t be surprised if Tatum gets a day off Saturday. Send him straight to Orlando and let him get some sunshine before the Celtics launch into a Floridian back-to-back.
Space to breathe
It’s wild that, just a week ago, the Celtics trekked to Brooklyn with the Nets breathing down their necks. A week later, Boston has a 4.5-game lead over both the Bucks and 76ers with the Nets sliding to six games back in the Eastern Conference.
That could afford the Celtics the opportunity to be diligent with rest. Brown might have rushed himself back a bit given the magnitude of Thursday’s game but the Celtics can afford to give someone like Tatum a rest day without fretting the standings implications.
Six games in 10 nights, including another marquee matchup with the Lakers, make this a somewhat prickly stretch before a much-deserved three-day break to close out the calendar month.
Twenty and 10 at age 36. Poor Horford is probably going to get one of those random drug tests from the NBA for turning back the clocks like that.
Horford cranked up his intensity just like he did throughout the playoffs last year. At one point late in the first quarter, after he pump-faked his way to a driving two-handed slam and did a chin-up on the rim, Horford was in double figures and no other player on the court for Boston had scored.
Multiple Celtics players joked that Al looked like he was 25 again.
Mazzulla punching his All-Star pass
Barring an unexpected skid, it feels like Mazzulla and his coaching staff will lock up their All-Star invitation this week. The teams with the best record in each conference through early February send their coaches to the All-Star game.
It’s a remarkable story considering all the calamity around Boston’s coaching situation right before the start of training camp.
One thing we kept pondering while watching Thursday’s game: Did we learn anything about Boston’s trade needs in this game?
For all the consternation about Boston’s need for another serviceable big man, Horford and Williams III paired up for 64 minutes (and that’s with Malcolm Brogdon playing crunch-time minutes over Williams III).
Boston leaned heavily on its core with only a nine-man rotation, while Derrick White (17:28), Grant Williams (12:49), and Luke Kornet (7:30) all played sparingly.
Maybe a more trustworthy wing could have allowed Tatum to sneak a short second-half break, but we’re not convinced Mazzulla would have even considered it.
The case for Celtics making one more trade after surviving Warriors
It almost feels like any midseason acquisition would be geared more towards simply limiting the stress on Boston’s core over the final 30 games of the regular season. Is that worth splurging prime assets to acquire?
We wrote the other day that Stevens must consider a splash because opportunities to truly compete for a title are never guaranteed and Boston is clearly a title favorite. But it sure feels like any splurge of assets ought to target something more than a rental given the limited opportunity that might exist for that player if the Celtics are at full health.