There was no shortage of positives for the Boston Celtics to pluck from Friday’s thrilling Game 3 win over the Brooklyn Nets but here’s what was most striking to us: The Celtics got straight up kicked in the teeth in the first four minutes and, rather than grab their sun tan lotion and flip flops, Boston responded with the sort of passion and fire that’s been missing for most of this maddening 2020-21 season.
Jayson Tatum went full supernova, producing his fourth 50-point game in 50 days; Evan Fournier hit what felt like a billion second-half 3-pointers to help fend off Brooklyn’s charges; Tristan Thompson played with an intensity typically reserved for Marcus Smart, who made a whole bunch of first-half 3s just to keep the Celtics in the game.
So even as Kemba Walker labored through another clunker (3-of-14 shooting, 5 fouls, though he made an impact on the glass) while dealing with a bruise on his balky left knee, and despite losing Robert Williams to a sprained ankle in the first half, the Celtics found a way to trade haymakers on a night that James Harden had the Nets' offense humming.
This is all that Celtics fans ever wanted from this team: playing with passion regardless of the obstacles. Three days ago, Joe Harris produced a first-half explosion and Boston quickly packed it in during a game they trailed by as much as 33. On Friday night, the Celtics decided to swing back.
As Smart would later relent, they didn’t really have another option. “Playoffs. We got no choice,” he said. "We weren’t ready to go down 3-0, so we had to change our mindsets.”
Tatum, bottled up since the start of Game 1 then gouged in the eye at the end of Game 2, elected to assert himself as the best player on the floor on a night where Harden was cooking and Durant had some absurd shot-making stretches. It’s getting hard to rank Tatum’s most impressive offensive outbursts this season. His 50-point barrage on the play-in stage seemed otherworldly, but Friday might have been even better.
Tatum went deeper into his bag than we’ve seen all year. While we can fret his propensity to get too isolation heavy at times, he thrived in those situations Friday (Synergy Sports data had Tatum generating 31 points out of isolation in Game 3; just an utterly absurd number).
Tatum was relentlessly aggressive, getting to the free throw line 15 times, this after generating just 2 attempts in Game 2. When the Nets did send extra bodies his way, Tatum made them pay with seven assists that led to 17 points, including 12 points off assists over the final 17 minutes of play after the Nets pulled even at 75.
Thompson dubbed Tatum the "Golden Child" and noted how the league’s best players go to another level on the biggest stage. Thompson said he told Tatum that the Celtics are going to go as far as he can take them this postseason.
But Friday’s effort was more than just Tatum. After pledging to ratchet up the intensity level in Game 3, Thompson held up his word. He was relentless on the offensive glass, often tossing Nets players aside in pursuit of premium position. He finished 19 points and 13 rebounds, including nine offensive rebounds, over 30:27. The NBA’s defensive tracking data had Nets players making just 4 of 15 attempts against Thompson, who became even more vital when Williams went out.
Boston also got rare help from a 2019 draft class that has struggled to consistently impact winning this season. Romeo Langford logged 27 minutes and had a plus-41.6 net rating in that extended run. That included a sizzling 149.1 offensive rating in his floor time, a remarkable number considering his individual offensive struggles at times this season.
Classmate Grant Williams played 11:17 and had a plus-55.8 net rating. He had a key first-half block when he climbed a mountain to swat a James Harden baseline floater.
This is the sort of team-wide effort the Celtics need to hang with the Nets. Brooklyn had an offensive rating of 125.3 for the game but a Boston team that has often struggled with offensive consistency countered at 130.2.
Suddenly, this series has life again. TD Garden capacity will vault to 17,226 for Sunday’s Game 4. As Kevin Garnett used to suggest, the Jungle will be rocking. Nearly four times as many fans as Friday night will be able to boo Kyrie Irving, and buoy the Celtics when they need it most.
Thompson, who has long noted he signed in Boston in large part to experience the playoff intensity, gushed that he, "Can’t wait for Sunday. We’re going to need that energy. We’re going to need them to rock this house and blow this god damn roof off this building.”