When the Celtics lost to the Warriors last month in San Francisco, they had a couple of sizable absences.
Al Horford was missing his third consecutive game in health and safety protocols, and Robert Williams wasn’t quite ready to return from left knee surgery. The Celtics were forced to start Blake Griffin against the defending champions and their frontcourt disadvantage was apparent. The Warriors won the rebounding battle and had a clear advantage inside in their blowout win.
On Thursday, the Celtics flipped the script and issued a reminder of why they’re arguably the toughest matchup in the league. For the first time this season, their starting five from last season’s run to the NBA Finals of Horford, Williams, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart opened the game and their size and physicality made a critical difference in their wild 121-118 overtime victory.
Warriors coach Steve Kerr made a curious decision to start a smaller unit and they paid the price. Horford, motivated by his first rematch against Golden State, set the tone. He scored 10 points in the first quarter on dominant drives and had a highlight block on Jordan Poole. Horford had arguably his best game of the season. Down the stretch, he made two huge blocks and drained a couple of big 3-pointers to help the C’s seal their comeback.
“I joked with Al, he came up and looked like he was 25 today,” Tatum said. “Two days off, I said he needed more two days in a row because he came out and set the tone. He really did. And we all kind of followed behind that the rest of the night.”
As the Celtics struggled through a rough shooting night, Horford and Williams were dominant to help them hang around. Williams, who finished with seven offensive rebounds, scored nine points over the final three minutes of the first half and he contributed to several second-chance opportunities to keep the C’s afloat in the second half.
The Celtics won the rebounding battle 63-47 – which included 18 offensive boards – and outscored the Warriors 52-30 in the paint. They also had 22 second-chance points, which was ultimately a huge difference.
“It’s one of the things that makes them so tough,” Kerr said. “The size at every position. It’s not just the two bigs. It’s Marcus as a point guard. He has great size and Defensive Player of the Year, and you have two enormous wings, so they’re a massive team. So, one of the reasons they have the best record in the league. These guys are big and physical and excellent on both ends.”
No rest for Tatum
Tatum certainly wasn’t planning on playing 48 minutes in Thursday’s win, so when Celtics interim head coach Joe Mazzulla came to the huddle before the beginning of the fourth quarter – which is typically his rest period – after playing the full second and third quarters, he was surprised when he realized he wasn’t coming out.
“It was funny, I normally play the whole second and third, so I come out and I put my warm-up on, and he comes back to the huddle and he’s drawing up a play and I heard my name,” Tatum said. “I was like, ‘Oh (expletive), I’m still in the game. And he asked me with like nine or eight minutes left in the fourth, he’s like, ‘You want to come out?’ And at that point, any time if you ever ask me do I want to come out, I’m not gonna say, ‘No.’ ”
Tatum played the final 41 minutes of the game – including the five-minute overtime – as he set a career-high with 19 rebounds. He also committed seven turnovers and shot 9-for-27, but Mazzulla thought his presence on the court was required.
“I just feel like that’s what the game needed at the time,” Mazzulla said. “I felt like we were in a good spot, I felt like he was in a good spot. I felt like regardless of whether he was in or out of the game, he was competing at a high level on both ends. And I just thought that’s what the game needed at that time.”
As it turns out, Tatum will get some extra rest following his 48-minute effort. The Celtics ruled him out for Saturday’s game in Toronto against the Raptors due to left wrist soreness. It’s the same wrist he suffered a small fracture in the playoffs last season and has continued to manage this season.
Boston traffic was so bad before Thursday’s game that members of both teams were late to TD Garden. Kerr was 15 minutes late to his pregame press conference and Brown took to Twitter on Friday to reveal he was late, too.
“It took almost 2hrs to get to the game yesterday I live 15 minutes away Boston traffic was so bad I’m still traumatized and felt the need to tweet this lol,” Brown tweeted.
Brown also said he missed his pregame shooting time and didn’t warm up before the game. It showed. In his return from an adductor strain, Brown started the game 2-for-12 shooting before hit some big shots late, including the game-tying 3-pointer in the final minute that sent the game to overtime.
“No way I wasn’t shooting it,” Brown said. “Coming back off of injury, just trying to get a rhythm. As the game went on, I kept feeling better and better. When it came down to the last possession, I got an open look and I knew it was going in.”
Odds & ends
Through the first half of the season, Tatum has the seventh-highest selling jersey in the NBA, according to the league. Steph Curry has the highest-selling jersey. …
Sam Hauser did not play in a game for the first time this season in Thursday’s win as he fell out of the rotation. Hauser is still in a serious slump, shooting 28.8 percent from 3 since the start of December, and his minutes have dwindled lately with the Celtics closer to full strength.