BOSTON — All it took for the Boston Celtics to end their season-long seven-game homestand with a victory Friday night was a 17-point comeback to force overtime — and the best game of Jayson Tatum’s career.
The 23-year-old All-Star finished with a career-high 53 points — including 35 in the second half and overtime — to lead the Celtics to a 145-136 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves, allowing Boston to escape from a game it trailed in for most of regulation, only to give away a late lead to send the game into overtime.
Tatum, 23, became the youngest Celtics player to score 50 in a game, surpassing Larry Bird, who did it at age 26.
“To score 50 is a big thing in this league and especially at this age,” Tatum said. “It’ll be a night I always remember, and we got the win on top of that — a big win.
“Every win right now is big.”
Friday’s game was, in many ways, a microcosm of Boston’s entire season. Playing again without Evan Fournier, who has missed the past few games because of the NBA’s health and safety protocols and won’t be traveling with the Celtics on their impending three-game West Coast trip, Boston’s lack of depth was an issue.
Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Kemba Walker all played at least 39 minutes, were the only four players in double figures and combined to score 120 of Boston’s 145 points. And, for a team that has been wildly inconsistent all season, the Celtics once again struggled for long stretches of this game against one of the NBA’s worst teams.
Those struggles included trailing by 14 points at the end of the first quarter — prompting coach Brad Stevens to make a very unusual move and go back to his entire starting 5 to begin the second.
“To be honest, I just didn’t want it to be 30 at halftime,” Stevens deadpanned afterward. “It was not heading in the right direction, and just wanted to maintain a distance. Just kind of hang in.”
While it didn’t exactly work as Stevens intended, as Boston went into the half trailing by nine, the Celtics eventually fired their way back into the game with a barrage of 3-pointers in the second half. After going 5-for-15 from deep in the first half, Boston went 14-for-27 from behind the arc in the second half and overtime — including Tatum, who shot 11-for-17 overall after halftime, going 5-for-8 from behind the arc.
“When we were coming back in the third, you could see he had it,” Stevens said. “And guys did a good job finding him.
“Tatum was super special tonight. … Don’t mistake his quiet demeanor for not being a competitor. He is a competitor.”
Boston needed every ounce of that competitiveness to win this one. The Celtics let an 11-point lead with just over 3 minutes remaining in regulation evaporate as the Wolves closed the fourth quarter with a 15-4 run, capped by a D’Angelo Russell banked-in 3-pointer with 8.6 seconds to go to send the game into overtime.
But rather than be beaten down by the way the fourth ended, Boston responded with another run to put the game away in overtime. The Celtics took advantage of the attention on Tatum to get first Brown and then Walker (twice) open for triples on three straight possessions to blow the game open and give Boston a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
“Staying the course,” Smart said, when asked how Boston was able to bounce back in overtime. “We had some plays that could really have turned for us and we couldn’t win down the road and we’ve been going down. We just decided and just continued to talk and I think tell one another that we gotta continue to keep going and just keep fighting through whatever adversity is in front of us.”