Forsberg: Why Tatum's buzzer-beater is a crucial step forward for C's


The 2021-22 Boston Celtics never win that sort of game.

Despite being the best team in basketball over the final three months of the season, the Celtics had a nasty habit of fading in crunch time. Boston checked just about every box on the legitimate title contender checklist late in the year, except for showing an ability to win close games.

Which is why Jayson Tatum’s buzzer-beating layup to steal Game 1 of an Eastern Conference first-round playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets feels even more monumental than your standard game-winner.

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Sunday’s winner delivered the sort of confidence transfusion that can carry a team through the playoffs. The Celtics already had the talent but were one bumbled final possession away from 48 hours of speculation about the team’s mental toughness, especially after kicking away a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter while Kevin Durant was on the Brooklyn bench.

Instead, the Celtics absorbed an absolute haymaker from old friend Kyrie Irving and gave him the virtual version of the middle finger he repeatedly flashed a jeering TD Garden crowd.

The Celtics have so often settled for isolation play and bad fadeaway jumpers at the end of games that it was downright jarring to see the final possession unfold the way it did.

Ime Udoka showed confidence in his crew by not calling a timeout after Boston’s final defensive stand. Udoka knew in that moment that, by avoiding a timeout, Brooklyn could not sub out a targetable defender like Irving, who ultimately waved feebly as Tatum spun his way to the winning layup.

Every single Boston player on the court factored into the final sequence. Al Horford, who had helped Marcus Smart hound Irving on the final possession, snagged a one-handed rebound when Kevin Durant’s 3-point attempt rocketed off the back rim. Derrick White gave the initial push up the floor and it was Jaylen Brown, relentless in his fourth-quarter attacking, who got the Nets defense scrambling with an initial baseline rush.

There were 3.5 seconds on the clock when Smart received the ball on the wing in front of the Brooklyn bench. Tatum later opened his postgame press conference by admitting, "Honestly, I think we all thought Smart was going to shoot it.”

The whole arena did. Everyone watching on national TV did. But Smart, a player who had quarterbacked the Celtics to the No. 1 offensive rating in the NBA over the final half of the season, watched Nic Claxton and Bruce Brown fly by and elected to drive in a one-point game. Smart later noted, "I’ve always been told you have more time than you realize you have."

Tatum started cutting from the moment Smart caught the ball and was rewarded when Smart zipped it his way. Still, Tatum showed amazing composure to catch, spin, and calmly lay the ball off the glass in a game where the Celtics missed 12 shots at the rim.

The endorphin-injecting final sequence helped mask a lot of went wrong for Boston. Irving erupted for 39 points and embraced the villain role despite the lusty boos that rained down throughout the day. The Celtics nearly kicked away a game in which Durant improbably missed 15 of his 24 shot attempts. The Nets were able to put up points against Boston’s vaunted defense and showed that Round 1 could be a bit of a grind.

But in the playoffs, all that matters is the final score. And 1-0 feels a whole lot better than 0-1. Especially with essentially three full days to marinate before Game 2 tips off on Wednesday night at TD Garden (7 p.m., NBC Sports Boston).

The Boston airwaves would have been brutal in that slow crawl to Game 2. A Celtics team that cratered in a pressure situation would have endured even more scrutiny after making the decision to push for the No. 2 seed while knowing the Nets were a likely opponent.

Instead, Sunday’s win could be something that further lights this team’s fuse. Something that powers the Celtics through Round 1 and gives them additional confidence if they’re lucky enough to see the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks in Round 2.

It also allows Udoka to stomp into the film session on Monday morning and bring everyone back to earth. He can blister them about letting go of the rope early in the fourth quarter and putting themselves in a tough spot. These are the best sorts of wins for coaches.

The national focus will linger on Irving and his Garden antics. Twice cameras caught Irving flipping off the crowd, and a fan’s video near the Brooklyn locker room showed Irving firing back with vulgarity after someone told him he sucked (albeit with a magical phrase that he once uttered in Philadelphia and sparked a 16-game Celtics winning streak).

Irving capped his night with profanity in his postgame press conference. The NBA can fine him up to $50,000, potentially for each infraction.

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Irving is embracing the villain role and fed off the boos on the court during Sunday’s game. He’s going to hear it again Wednesday night, and the question is whether it can fuel him again. After watching Irving check out mentally at a time when things were going well in Boston -- see the 2018-19 second-round series against the Bucks in which Boston won Game 1 -- it will be fascinating to see if he stays engaged if the Nets can’t capitalize on his big nights.

The Celtics have to be better, but Sunday's finish proved that one of their most glaring weaknesses might be on the mend. And that’s way more important than what went wrong.

"It was fulfilling for us, especially because of the way we started this year off. Those types of games, we lost," said Smart. "We were probably crumbling. 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. 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. 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."

Note: Games 2-6 of the Brooklyn Nets-Boston Celtics series will be aired on NBC Sports Boston and can also be streamed on or with the MyTeams App, which you can download below.

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