Jaylen Brown has taken another huge step forward this season, putting together a career season that will almost certainly send him to his second All-Star Game next month.
But there have been several nights this season that the Celtics star would rather forget. Thursday night is certainly high on the list.
The Celtics, though lethargic for long stretches, were resilient as they produced a monster fourth quarter comeback and overcame a double-digit deficit to send the game to overtime. But some forgettable sequences haunted them in the extra session. With less than 10 seconds to go and a chance to grab victory, Brown missed two free throws, which sealed a 120-117 loss to the Knicks on a wild night at TD Garden.
“I have to be better, to be honest,” Brown said after shooting 8-for-22 in the loss. “Tonight was just a rough game, and I’m a better basketball player than I played today. Those two missed free throws kind of embodied the whole game. I didn’t really get going, didn’t give my team enough energy to win.
“That’s what happens when you don’t come out and give your best. I’ll be better.”
Jayson Tatum finished with 35 points, including some huge plays down the stretch in regulation to send the game to overtime. But Julius Randle had his way with the Celtics en route to 37 points, Jalen Brunson punished them with 29 points and the C’s couldn’t overcome several missed opportunities in overtime.
The Celtics led by five early in overtime and then two with less than two minutes to go after Randle’s 3-pointer. But they failed to build on their advantage. Even as they fought for loose balls and Malcolm Brogdon and others came up with big offensive boards, the Celtics went nearly three minutes without scoring a point. R.J. Barrett finally made them pay with a 3-pointer from the corner to give the Knicks a one-point lead with 29 seconds left.
Brown answered with a driving layup but on the ensuing Knicks possession, Robert Williams fouled Randle, who hit two go-ahead free throws. Brown was fouled on his jumper with seven seconds to go. Trailing by two, Brown hit the front rim on both of his attempts and that sealed Boston’s fate. Barrett made two free throws and Tatum’s game-tying 3-point attempt was off as the Celtics lost their third consecutive game.
“Those two free throws kind of embodied the whole performance,” Brown said. “It was lackluster. I had a chance to bring it home for us, give us the lead, didn’t happen. But you wear it, don’t run away from it and get ready for the next one.”
The Celtics – who were ahead by 13 in the first quarter behind a scorching start – failed to build on that momentum and the hungry, feisty Knicks stormed back.
The Celtics trailed by as many as 13 in the fourth quarter and by 12 with less than five minutes to go in regulation when they seemed to finally answer the alarm clock after some sloppy play to begin the fourth put them in a deep hole. It was fueled on a series of much-needed defensive stops.
Williams was fouled on a layup, but missed the free throw, to bring the Celtics within eight. On their next defensive possession, they forced the Knicks into a shot-clock violation and Tatum’s driving layup made it a six-point game.
Tatum and Randle exchanged buckets before Tatum took over. He converted a three-point play to make it 110-105 before he intercepted a pass from Randle and found Brogdon, who drained a 3 to close it to a one-possession game.
After another stop, Brogdon missed a wide open attempt at the go-ahead 3-pointer but the Celtics defense forced another shot clock violation. Tatum then drove for the game-tying layup and after forcing another stop, they had a chance to win the game on the final possession. But Tatum misfired on a decent look and the game went to overtime, where the C’s ultimately couldn’t get it done.
As the Celtics hit 50 games here in late January, they’ve seemed to hit a little bit of a wall. After a nine-game winning streak, they’ve dropped three in a row for just the second time this season. Some key guys have been out, including Marcus Smart on Thursday. But they’ve lost some sharpness on some of the details that have pushed them atop the NBA.
Those things happen over a long, 82-game season. But nights like Thursday show they still have work to do to stay connected, consistent and keep their focus on a nightly basis.
“Great teams know why they’re good, and why they’re good all the time,” interim head coach Joe Mazzulla said. “And so we just can’t take possessions or time in the game for granted, and I didn’t think we played consistently the entire game, physical, detailed, connected basketball. When we turned it on, we really did. And so we just have to do that all the time.
“Being a great team is really, really hard. You just have to work at it every single day, and you’ve just got to do the small, boring things all the time.”