BOSTON — Jayson Tatum has had some brilliant nights this season. Nights when he drops in parabolic 3-pointers and slings crosscourt passes and guides his Boston Celtics to lopsided wins. Nights when no one can impede his 6-foot-8, 210-pound frame on his drives to the hoop. Nights when he plays pristine basketball, boosting his candidacy for his first N.B.A. Most Valuable Player Award.
Thursday? Thursday was not one of those nights.
Facing the Golden State Warriors in their much-anticipated return to Boston, Tatum tossed passes into the hands of defenders. He launched jump shots that drifted wide and carried long, as if pushed around by a swirling breeze. And he coughed up his dribble — including once to Golden State’s Stephen Curry, who capitalized on the mistake by casually draining a 50-footer at the halftime buzzer.
It was not Tatum’s best game. The good news for the Celtics is that they did not need it to be.
“Those are the most rewarding wins that you can have,” Tatum said.
Nothing about Boston’s 121-118 overtime victory over Golden State was artistic. The Celtics, renowned for their offense this season, shot 39.8 percent from the field. And Tatum committed seven turnovers, including two in the final 74 seconds of regulation that would have gotten him booted from noontime hoops at the South Shore Y.M.C.A.
But Joe Mazzulla, the Celtics’ interim coach, describes himself as someone who likes to see if his team can “operate in the chaos” — especially against an accomplished opponent like the Warriors.
On Thursday, there was plenty of chaos. But Jaylen Brown compensated for Tatum’s late-game blunders by sending the game to overtime with a 3-pointer, and Al Horford and Tatum then sealed the win with back-to-back 3-pointers of their own.
“You need games like this,” Tatum said, adding: “I think that just shows the depth of our team, on a below-average night for us, that we can still find a way to win.”
The Celtics, who improved their league-best record to 34-12, have not been perfect this season. In mid-December, they lost five of six games, a skid that included back-to-back losses to the lottery-bound Orlando Magic. Tatum missed one of those losses so that he could attend his son Deuce’s 5th birthday party, which was probably not the best look for him at the time. “Social media was mad,” he said.
In any case, it was a stretch of lackluster basketball that was alarming enough for fans and pundits to question if Mazzulla had the necessary experience (as a first-time N.B.A. head coach) or gravitas (at age 34) to lead a team with championship hopes.
That stretch turned out to be a blip. Boston has won eight in a row. Ahead of Thursday’s game, Tatum was coming off a tour de force against the Charlotte Hornets, when he scored a season-high 51 points and shot 15 of 23 from the field.
Tatum was not going to sniff 50 points against Golden State — not after scoring two points in the first quarter, and not after shooting 3 of 11 from the field in the first half. Andrew Wiggins, one of the league’s craftiest defenders, might as well have attached himself to Tatum using duct tape, and Tatum could have been forgiven for feeling as if it was all a bit too familiar.
It was the Warriors’ first trip to TD Garden since last June, when the team clinched its fourth title in eight seasons by defeating the Celtics in Game 6 of the N.B.A. finals. That night was a triumph for Golden State, which celebrated in a club section of the arena until 5 a.m. before boarding a flight to California with another championship trophy in its possession.
In many ways, the finals had been billed as a referendum on youth versus experience, pitting Boston’s ascendant stars against Golden State’s title-tested core. Two players in particular personified the matchup, and it turned out to be a bit of a mismatch: There was Curry, who reasserted his supremacy by averaging 31.2 points for the series. And, of course, there was Tatum, who shot the ball poorly (often while being defended by Wiggins) and appeared gassed by the end.
Tatum has since spoken about how that series affected him, about how he had trouble leaving his house for several days in its immediate aftermath, and about how he ultimately looked at it as a learning experience. He had thought he understood that the playoffs were a grind, he said then, but now he really knew.
Still, the ghosts from the finals seemed to linger when Boston visited Golden State on Dec. 10 in their first of two meetings this season. In hindsight, Tatum said, the Celtics were too excited, too eager for some form of revenge: Tatum struggled, and the Celtics lost by 16.
“Everybody wanted to win so bad,” he said.
Ahead of Thursday’s game, the Celtics tried to maintain a more balanced perspective. The gist of their conversations this week, Tatum said, was that one game was not going to erase what happened last season.
“The fact of the matter is, we lost — we lost the championship,” he said. “We can’t go back in time and change that. So we didn’t look at this as a rematch of the finals. It’s just one game against a great team, great players and obviously a great coach. But it’s just one game.”
Tatum kept repeating that phrase — that it was just one game — as if he were trying to convince himself that it was true. Some of his actions on Thursday indicated otherwise. Consider: He played 48 minutes. Mazzulla said he had a brief conversation with Tatum about whether to leave him in the game early in the fourth quarter.
“I looked at him, he looked at me, we kind of said, ‘Yeah,’ and that was it,” Mazzulla said.
Perhaps fatigue played a role in a few of Tatum’s mistakes. He shot only 9 of 27 from the field, though he made up for it in other ways, collecting 34 points, 19 rebounds and 6 assists — a stat line that would have made other players proud.
Tatum, though, has higher standards now, and bigger goals. On Thursday, his teammates backed him up, another sign of growth for a young group that continues to move forward. Sure, it was only one game. But even Tatum acknowledged a deeper meaning.
“Just trying to put the past behind us,” he said.