Controversial Jayson Tatum foul overturned as Cavs snap Celtics’ 11-game winning streak

CLEVELAND — It had to happen eventually. The Boston Celtics are the best team in the NBA, but they’re not perfect.

They’re imposing on paper and usually even more impressive on the floor. But their consistent, dynamic system is all about thinking fast and playing slow. They try to identify the opponent’s weakness as fast as possible and then start digging at it.

But what happens when the opponent can’t stop missing? You get what happened Tuesday, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ biggest fourth-quarter comeback in franchise history.

“Any given night, you can lose,” Jaylen Brown said after the Cavs’ 105-104 win, snapping the Celtics’ 11-game winning streak. “Tonight, obviously in this fashion, (Dean) Wade scores 20 in the fourth, and da-da-da-la-la, everything goes their way. We haven’t really seen a team storm back like that. But, you know, it happens. It’s the league, the NBA, anything can happen.”

Anything, such as Dean Wade’s burying five 3s in the fourth quarter to erase Boston’s seemingly insurmountable advantage. The Celtics’ execution and defensive rebounding abandoned them and so did their 22-point lead.

“Everybody’s gonna have their own perspective on it. Mine is is that that’s what happens when you don’t match the gas and take little things for granted throughout the game and let a team stick around,” Brown said. “They’re still NBA players, and tip your cap to D Wade. He got hot, we wasn’t expecting or accounting for that. But we still should’ve won this game.”

Boston had plenty of time to slow Cleveland’s progress, but it wasn’t playing in transition off of misses like it’s used to. Picking up cross matches was difficult, and Cleveland’s switching scheme kept Boston from getting clean driving lanes.

Because the Celtics’ spacing was a little cramped, they rarely found open kickout lanes when they did get anywhere with the ball. There were a few times Kristaps Porziņģis, Jrue Holiday and Jayson Tatum got clean spot-up 3s, but they bricked those, too.

“We kind of were on top of each other,” Brown said. “There was plenty of opportunities to get to some good matchups and things we feel comfortable with, and I don’t think we got to it nearly as much as we normally do, and that led to some empty possessions.”

Cleveland looked great running off Boston’s misses, putting Porziņģis in difficult coverage decisions on the pick-and-roll or in help where he had to straddle two Cavs players at once. Whether it was being aggressive up to touch in drop coverage on the Darius Garland–Jarrett Allen pick-and-roll, or dealing with Wade and Georges Niang spacing the floor, Porziņģis had to be in too many places at once during the Cavs’ 32-8 run heading into the final two minutes. The Celtics were on the other end of the same conundrums they make opposing defenses solve every night.

Of course, they did have a chance to win it. As Tatum wound down the clock and tried to find an opening, he eventually got into the patented fadeaway 15-footer and the refs blew the whistle. Two free throws to win the game, until the review determined the sequence of contact between Tatum and Garland did not constitute a defensive foul.

“It’s our opinion that the leg extension by Tatum created the marginal contact and Garland did not make any illegal contact at all,” referee Zach Zarba said in the NBA pool report.

“It was unfortunate, I thought I got fouled but they didn’t think I got fouled and it’s tough because we got, we would have had the tip in,” Tatum said. “Just a weird way to end the game, but they always say the game isn’t won or lost on the last play.”

Frankly, it was a clean look over a shorter defender, so the shot is fine. But it does prompt two questions. Why does the last shot almost always come down to Tatum’s trying to get to a midrange spot? And why, after spending the whole game taking stepback 3s, driving the lane or posting up, does Tatum take a shot he has mostly removed from his arsenal, especially since it’s Brown’s go-to shot?

“Of course, everybody is ready to make a play at the end. We trust JT and we live and die by those last possessions, last shots,” Porziņģis said. “Today again it didn’t go our way, but it’s going to be a good learning lesson for us for sure.”

For so long, it looked like the game was theirs, but they gave Cleveland some life and the crowd got into it. Boston yielded an all-timer comeback from Cleveland from the most unlikely of sources, but it could see it happening slowly over the quarter. It wasn’t like some sort of shock event happened, but rather just consistent shotmaking by Cleveland’s supporting cast.

It was a reminder of not only how shooting luck and shot margin play a crucial role in their success but also that the Celtics are human, even when they are winning every night.

“I think it’s healthy for us. We do have feelings like, ‘Hey, we’re going to win every game.’ Like, we’re invincible, we’re gonna win this game,” Porziņģis said. “No matter what happens, we’re like, ‘We got this.’ A little bit of that feeling is always there. It’s maybe healthy, but it’s also healthy to get a loss here and there like, ‘Here we go. Let’s recalibrate a little bit and have that attention to detail again.’ So I think it’s completely fine and I think it’s necessary to keep building.”

Brown said comfort will kill you and this was the lesson they needed to remember.

“Yeah, cause I think we are a much better team than we showed today, and today was just a mentality loss, I think,” Brown said. “We had the game and then we got comfortable, so it was more of a mindset thing than X’s and O’s. We gotta just be the more disciplined, the more militant team to be focused. We weren’t that, usually we are that, and we felt that today.”

But this game was a reminder of the lurking question that will always hang over this team. How does it win when things really aren’t going its way? Its read-and-react offense is harder to run in the clutch when teams are defending with significantly more intensity and focus.

Derrick White and Holiday looked limited on offense when they weren’t hitting their shots. Tatum was able to get to the Kobe fadeaway for the winner, but does it make sense to keep fighting for that shot in the closing moment when he rarely takes it throughout the game?

There’s a lot to consider when this team finally takes a brief reprieve from flying sky-high to live with the rest of the league. It’s one loss, even if it’s the first in over a month, so this evening just turns the focus to the questions that have always quietly lurked in the background.

The answer is most likely that everything’s fine, the Celtics are head and shoulders above the league, and that will translate into just being just a hair past the competition when things get serious in the spring.

They have built up all these systems, philosophies and skills over the year. You don’t forget how to shoot or pass in an instant. But those aren’t the things Joe Mazzulla references when he talks about what they are fighting for. He talks about fighting for the right mentality.

Because in the end, the Celtics are only going to succeed if they’re locked in. It’s not always going to be the likes of Donovan Mitchell or Evan Mobley taking them down. Sometimes it’s just Wade turning into a pocket Porziņģis for a quarter. It was an anomaly from a good, but not great player. But that Miami series was one giant anomaly. So this loss has to be important.

“Yeah, today matters,” Brown said. “Whether everybody wants to throw it away or not, we gotta look at the film and address some stuff, cause that matters. Your habits are everything, your mentality is everything.”

(Photo: Sue Ogrocki / Associated Press)

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