Up and down and up and down they go. The Boston Celtics roller coaster season continued Sunday night with a 129-119 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers at TD Garden. Following Jayson Tatum’s 60-point outing on Friday night against the Spurs, Boston was unable to keep the momentum going and fell short in the second half of this game. CJ McCollum led the way for Portland with 33 while Tatum led the Celtics with the same total.
The beginning of this game looked like Jayson Tatum hadn’t left the court since Friday’s game against the Spurs. He was totally on fire, knocking down difficult shot after difficult shot, driving to the rim and hitting his patented side-step three with ease. However, the entire Trail Blazers lineup joined him in his shot making display, so the C’s were never able to create any separation. In what ended up being one of the most entertaining first halves of the season, both teams put up 71 points to go tied into the break.
From there, though, Portland did just enough to pull out the win, as Boston’s last lead of the game came in the early stages of the third quarter. The game didn’t get away from Boston until the last few minutes, but at the same time they were never able to get over the hill and retake the lead. After their scorching first half, Boston cooled off in the second half, scoring only 48 points over the final 24 minutes. That’s just not good enough against a team with as much firepower as Portland, and for a team that is still fighting to avoid the play-in tournament, they need to be better.
Of course, the immediate concern from this game is the health of Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, who both exited with 40 seconds remaining after colliding while trying to make a play on a loose ball.
Both players came down holding their ankles, and from the way they left the court, it looks like Brown’s may have been a little more painful than Tatum’s. Boston cannot afford to lose these guys for any length of time, as they are the only true sources of consistent offense this team has had all season. Losing them now, even for just a game or two, would be a huge blow. Luckily, they both seemed to be okay in the locker room after the game according to their teammates, so the C’s may have dodged a bullet on this one.
One positive Boston can take from this game is the improved play, at least for one night, of Evan Fournier. Obviously, coming back from a battle with COVID-19 is not easy, and Fournier’s recent struggles are entirely understandable. His comments after the game show just how much he’s been struggling, and honestly it’s surprising he’s even on the court at all.
However, this team needs Fournier playing at a high level, the All-Star level he was playing at in Orlando, to be at their ceiling, and they’ve had that version of the French sharpshooter for about five games since the trade deadline a month and a half ago. But against Portland, he was 8-10 from the field for 21 points. He’s not going to go 8-10 every night, but if the C’s can get a consistent 15-20 points a night out of him, that will be more than enough.
And finally, Aaron Nesmith continues to earn more and more playing time. Fouls limited his time tonight, as did the hot shooting of the above mentioned Evan Fournier, but every time Nesmith hits the floor recently, he’s looking more and more like the guy that Danny Ainge was hoping for at #14 in the draft. He was a perfect 4-4 on three-pointers and 6-7 from the floor overall, hitting 16 points for the second consecutive game to tie his high.
That’s a confident shooter. It’s gotten to the point that Brad Stevens is now drawing up plays during timeouts to get Nesmith a catch-and-shoot attempt, something that would have sounded crazy even a month ago. But it’s not just his offense. The energy he plays with while he’s on the floor is matched only by Marcus Smart on this roster. Early in the year, when he wasn’t making shots, the energy just seemed like fake hustle to stay on the court, but now it’s become a huge part of the Celtics defense. He’s running all over the place and looks lost at times, but it somehow works and it’s magical. And again, he’s finally making shots. What he’s shown recently has been amazing and a source of hope going down the stretch if he can keep it up. With Tatum and Brown leading the way, this team doesn’t need much from its bench, but anything that Nesmith can provide is going to go a long way.
This would have been a really nice win, especially after the emotional victory they scored on Friday night. Portland is a tough team with one of the best closers in the game in Damian Lillard, but the Celtics are in a battle at the bottom of the East standings and every win matters. They need to start playing like every game is a playoff game, and not take any nights off. The teams ahead of them are heating up, while Boston continues to tread water and float right around .500. If they want to avoid the play-in tournament, and the chance of going home completely empty-handed, they’d better start winning now.
Next up is a matchup with the Orlando Magic on Wednesday night. Win this game. Please. As high as this team’s ceiling is, their floor is also inexcusably low for the amount of talent they have. They cannot afford to play down to the Magic’s level, who are just playing out the string at this point. But as last week’s loss to the Thunder, who just set the record for worst home loss in NBA history, shows, we never know if this team is going to show up or not.
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