CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Gerald Wallace was at his best here. He was Crash. During his physical prime, he was a shutdown defender who teamed with Stephen Jackson for a formidable scoring duo and led the downtrodden Bobcats to the playoffs in 2009-10.
That was the distant past and Crash’s body is beginning to betray him. Yet, Charlotte fans showed their appreciation for Wallace with a nice round of applause as he entered the game in the first quarter, and he returned the gesture with a vintage Crash game to lead the Celtics to a 96-86 win over the Bobcats on Monday at Time Warner Cable Arena.
Wallace scored a season-high 17 points along with 4 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2 steals as the Celtics used a 19-3 first-half run and led nearly the entire way. On a night when Jeff Green, Avery Bradley, and Jared Sullinger combined for 8-for-31 shooting, the Celtics relied on their depth to avenge a Nov. 13 loss at TD Garden.
Jordan Crawford sparked the offense with a second-quarter 3-point barrage and led the Celtics with 21 points while Brandon Bass added 16. The Celtics have responded to their six-game losing streak with two consecutive road victories.
Wallace had scored in double figures just two times previously this season and struggled to find a role and consistency. Another meeting with coach Brad Stevens provided encouragement. Stevens told him just to be Crash again, nothing more.
“I was a little faster back in the day but this is pretty much the way I like to play,” said Wallace, who averaged 18 points or more three times in Charlotte. “I have a lot of fun [being Crash]. It hurt a whole lot but I have a lot fun, but that’s the only way I know how to play and that’s the way I like to play.”
Wallace’s 454 games with the Bobcats is the high for his 10-year-old franchise, and the 31-year-old mainly reflected after Monday’s contest. He said he was angry about being traded to Portland in 2011, and he recalled a conversation in his first year with the Bobcats with coach Bernie Bickerstaff.
The veteran coach told him he was an “OK” player when he thought on the court but a “heck of a ballplayer” when he just played on instinct. Wallace said he’s trying to use more instinct with the Celtics.
Wallace scored 6 points, attempted seven free throws, and added three assists when the Celtics outscored the Bobcats, 33-17, in the second quarter. And he was able to avoid those silly turnovers that have plagued his Celtics stint.
“I thought he might play well today because we talked a little bit [on Sunday],” Stevens said. “I think he was a little frustrated coming off the last stretch of games and you could kind of sense he was going to be focused and ready. He’s such a competitive guy and I really enjoy having him on our team.”
The Celtics led, 47-38, at halftime but watched the duo of Gerald Henderson and Kemba Walker slice the deficit by making contested jump shots. Walker tied the game at 64-all with a jumper at the 1:29 mark. Bass ended the period with a fadeaway jumper for a 2-point lead and the Celtics began the fourth quarter with a 9-0 run for a 77-67 lead.
Wallace scored his final basket on a layup with 3:42 left for an 88-76 lead. Boston capitalized on Charlotte coach Steve Clifford’s decision to keep Walker on the bench for the first 6:20 of the fourth quarter, and the Celtics went on a 16-7 run. By the time the former UConn standout reentered the game, it was too late.
The Celtics once again have regained their confidence and recipe for winning.
“That’s our main thing, we don’t have the go-to guys who can get their own shots in halfcourt,” Wallace said. “We have to spread the floor, create turnovers, get our in transition, run, and we have so many athletic guys, so many guys who can get up and down the court and we have to take advantage of that.”
Boston also bottled up inside stalwart Al Jefferson, who led Charlotte to an 89-83 win at TD Garden two weeks earlier with 22 points and 11 rebounds. Of Jefferson’s 14 shots Monday, seven were attempted outside the paint and he finished with just 14 points and three rebounds on a frustrating night.
Stevens used big men Vitor Faverani, Kris Humphries, and Sullinger on Jefferson, which pushed Charlotte’s offense back to the perimeter. And when the Bobcats were trying to rally down the stretch, Wallace led a defensive charge that limited Charlotte to 6-of-16 shooting in the final quarter with five turnovers.
It was the type of rough-and-tumble game Wallace enjoys, and he was glad to revert to his previous life in front of the Charlotte fans. It had been a while since Crash was a factor, and he wants his alter ego to surface more often.
“My athleticism isn’t the way it used to be but I think I still play better when I don’t worry about what’s going on and just play ball,” he said. “I was thinking too much, trying to fit in, not being aggressive. I attacked the rim tonight and played in the flow of the game.”