BOSTON — Jayson Tatum rolled off a screening action with Grant Williams and suddenly — somehow — found himself all alone with the ball beyond the 3-point arc. On a night he punished the Heat for 48 minutes, there was little question what was coming next.
Minutes later, as he stepped to the free-throw line to put the finishing touches on his best performance of the season, “MVP” chants continued to shower down on Tatum. Just another night for the player who’s arguably been the league’s best through the first quarter of the season.
The Celtics were far from perfect on Wednesday night. They committed 17 turnovers, including six from Jaylen Brown. Their defense was pedestrian at times. But at the end of the night, they had just too much firepower against a Heat team without two of their best players. Tatum scored a season-high 49 points, Brown surged late to score 26 and the Celtics ultimately held off the Heat with a 134-121 victory.
The seeds of Tatum’s big game were planted from the opening tip, when the Celtics got off to another scorching offensive start. Tatum scored the game’s first six points, a cutting dunk before he converted on a four-point play. He later hit back-to-back 3s as the Celtics took an early 20-6 advantage.
But in what became a theme throughout the night, the Heat — even without Jimmy Butler or Victor Oladipo — had plenty of answers. The Celtics’ defense, faced with their toughest challenge of late, was too relaxed as Miami faced little resistance. Led by Tyler Herro and Bam Adebayo, the visitors went on a 21-5 run to take a two-point lead late in the first quarter.
The Celtics struggled to gain separation from the Heat for most of the night but finally created some room to breathe midway through the second quarter. They trailed by two when Brown and Tatum went to work and led Boston on a 12-0 run. Tatum drilled a step-back 3, then converted on a three-point play before Brown’s layup forced a timeout from Heat coach Erik Spoelstra.
Tatum scored 28 points in the first half — three shy of his season average entering Wednesday — as the Celtics built an eight-point halftime lead. But they continued to look sluggish defensively and sloppy to start the third quarter. Caleb Martin (10 points) hit a 3 to star the half before Brown picked up his fourth foul on the Celtics’ first offensive possession out of the break, which sent the star to the bench. The C’s struggled to contain the hot 3-point shooting of Max Strus (23 points) and his teammates but maintained their slim lead behind Tatum’s timely shot-making.
The Celtics led by two when a broken play put the ball in the hands of Tatum, who stepped into a 3. He grabbed the rebound on the Celtics’ next stop and then drilled another in transition, sending the Garden into a frenzy as the Heat called another timeout. Strus responded by drilling back-to-back triples before Tatum finished a three-point play in transition. He then got some help from some of his teammates, including Brogdon, who scored eight points to finish the period, and Luke Kornet, whose put-back at the buzzer gave the C’s a six-point lead into the fourth.