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Boston Celtics advance in NBA In-Season Tournament on unique and exciting night

BOSTON --  The Celtics had their backs against the wall heading into their final game of group play in the NBA's inaugural In-Season Tournament on Tuesday night. They needed to blow out the Bulls by at least 23 points at TD Garden, and hope for a Nets victory in Brooklyn to advance to the next stage.

The Celtics were just one of the many teams facing a slightly whacky scenario Tuesday night, leading to a unique and exciting evening for basketball fans around the country. In Boston, it all worked out in the end, as the C's pummeled the Bulls by 27 points, 124-97, and the Nets beat the Raptors to give the Celtics the Group C crown.

The Celtics, the Magic, and the Nets all finished 3-1 in group play. The Magic had a win over the Celtics, the Celtics had a win over the Nets, and the Nets had a win over the Magic, forcing point differential to be the deciding tiebreaker in the group.

It was all a bit confusing throughout the day Tuesday. Some players didn't even know what the heck was going on.

But the Celtics knew they needed to win big on Tuesday night, and it showed with their effort on the court. They came out firing and built a 19-point lead by halftime off 65 percent shooting (26-for-40) while knocking down 13 of their 24 3-pointers. Jaylen Brown led the charge with 16 points over the first 24 minutes, knocking down a trio of threes in the first quarter before slamming down three loud dunks in the second quarter.

That 19-point lead was good, but it wasn't good enough. Especially for a team that has a tendency to let leads slip away in the third quarter.

That was not the case Tuesday night. Brown poured in 10 more points in the frame and Jayson Tatum added eight of his 21 points as Boston built a 32-point advantage. They led by 29 heading into the fourth quarter and by 28 with just under eight minutes to play. That would usually be when stars and starters take a permanent seat on the bench.

But every point counts in the In-Season Tournament. So the Celtics kept trying to tack onto the scoreboard, and Joe Mazzulla put his starters back in to keep building that lead. The Celtics even employed the Hack-A-Drummond strategy to do so, intentionally fouling Chicago big man Andre Drummond.

The Celtics fouled Drummond -- a career 47.7 percent free-throw shooter -- on back-to-back possessions. He missed all four of his freebies, while the Celtics got five points out of Al Horford on their ensuing possessions to make it a 34-point game.

That required Mazzulla to have a midcourt chat with Bulls head coach Billy Donovan, who wasn't too pleased with the tactic. Mazzulla said postgame that he apologized to both Donovan and Drummond.

The TD Garden was feeling it in the final minutes of the game, with fans on their feet and an incredible energy in the building as the game came to a conclusion. The Nets and the Raptors still had a few minutes to play, but Brooklyn started to pull away late, making the scoreboard-watching a little easier on everyone.

The Celtics never let their energy down on the court, and the fans kept it going in the stands. It's not often that fans and players alike are completely invested in a 30-point blowout, but that's what the In-Season Tournament is brining to the NBA. Nicely done, Adam Silver.

"To be honest, it was a little weird," Brown said after putting in a game-high 30 points in the win. "But the ultimate goal is to go out and get a win, and that's what we did."

"It's just weird because it's new, it's different," said Mazzulla. "I truly love watching the European tournaments and the style that they have. And so five, six years from now, this is going to be just normal."  

At the end of a unique and slightly confusing night, Boston was moving on. Their point differential wasn't enough to secure a home game in the next round, so they'll now face the Pacers in Indiana next Monday night in the single-elimination quarterfinals. Boston crushed the Pacers in Boston, 155-104, on Nov. 1.

The winner of Monday night's game will get a trip to Las Vegas to face the winner of the New York Knicks-Milwaukee Bucks quarterfinal game in the semifinals on Thursday, Dec. 7, with the In-Season title game set for Saturday night, Dec. 9.

It was clear Tuesday night that the Celtics -- and teams around the league -- really want to claim the first-ever In-Season crown. It required some math and was confusing at times, but it led to an extremely fun and interesting late-November game, adding a new and exciting element to the NBA season. 

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