Kemba Walker considers himself a winner, but after leading UConn to the 2011 NCAA title, he had not had a chance to do very much of it.
After eight mostly challenging seasons with the Hornets, he came to Boston eager to remember what it felt like to play in games that truly matter.
“The preparation game by game, the adjustments, that’s what I missed,” Walker said. “That’s what I missed. It’s just fun. I’ve always felt like I’m a winner, and I want to play at the highest level. And I’m able to do that now and it’s really exciting.”
On Friday night, with Gordon Hayward sidelined and Jayson Tatum scuffling, Walker had his first big postseason moment as a Celtic, tallying 24 points, 8 rebounds and 4 assists to lead Boston to a 102-94 win.
The Celtics trailed, 94-92, when they closed the game with a 10-0 run in the final two minutes to take a 3-0 lead in the Eastern Conference opening-round series.
First, Marcus Smart gobbled up a crosscourt pass from Joel Embiid and fed Jaylen Brown, who coasted in for a layup as he was fouled. At the other end, Tatum swiped the ball away from Embiid and broke free on a fast break. Josh Richardson grabbed Tatum before he went up for a layup but was whistled for a clear-path foul, giving Boston two free throws and the ball. Tatum made one, and Walker shook Al Horford with a step-back jumper to make it 98-94. The Sixers never scored again.
Philadelphia shot just 29.5 percent from the field but stayed in the game thanks to a 20-3 edge on offensive rebounds.
Observations from the game:
▪ Tatum was probably due for an off night. In his eight games after an opening-night clunker against the Bucks, Tatum had made 53.7 percent of his shots and 51.6 percent of his 3-pointers. On Friday he made 6 of 19 shots, 2 of 9 3-pointers and finished with 15 points.
He was once again positioned to get an extended run with the backups when he went to the bench just five minutes into the game. But after he checked back in he picked up his third foul with 35.3 seconds left in the first quarter, throwing a wrench in the plan. He finished out the period but sat for the entire second quarter, and was never really able to get untracked after that.
Still, he found other ways to be effective, including his three fourth-quarter blocked shots. His late swat of Embiid turned out to be one of the game’s most important moments.
“Trying to get into the flow of the game, it took a little while,” Tatum said, “just trying to make an impact any way I could tonight.”
▪ Al Horford returned to the starting lineup after being replaced in Game 2 by the rookie forward Matisse Thybulle. But the start was an adventure for the former Celtics big man. On Boston’s first possession he was smoked by a Brown backdoor cut for a dunk.
“It’s a read, something we talked about,” Brown said. “Knowing how they were playing me, I told [Walker] if he is playing me like that on the first play, look for it, and Kemba put it right on the money.”
Then Horford hacked Brown on a 3-point attempt. Then he committed a goaltending violation on a Tatum shot inside that looked like it was going to miss.
▪ Walker played well on offense in the first two games in this series, but it was grating on him a bit that he had yet to find his long-range stroke. In Games 1 and 2 he combined to make 14 of 22 2-pointers and 1 for 10 3-pointers. He hit 3 of 8 3-pointers Friday, although his biggest shot came inside the arc, when Horford never had a chance of keeping up with him on the mid-range step-back with 1:05 left.
“Just trying my best to create space, man,” Walker said. “That’s really it. I was able to get some great separation on Al and I hit a great shot.”
▪ Few players absorb as many bumps and bruises during a game as Smart. The first half was particularly bumpy. First, he took a knee to the thigh when trying to maneuver around an Embiid screen, and then a few minutes later he was sent to the floor when Josh Richardson inadvertently smashed into him from behind. That second blow sent Smart out of the game for some medical attention, but he returned, as usual and was sprawling across the floor again in no time.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who are very scrappy guys and can play with physicality,” Smart said, “so we know that a game like that fits perfectly.”
▪ Walker was engaged at both ends of the floor. One example: Midway through the third quarter he battled with Horford in the paint and worked hard to get a clean strip. He then tip-toed the baseline before grabbing the ball and firing it out of bounds and off of Horford.
“He was the leader tonight,” Tatum said, “He carried us. He was special.”
▪ With just under eight minutes left in the third quarter Embiid picked up his fourth foul. He went to the bench with the Sixers trailing, 63-56, giving the Celtics a good opportunity to pull away. But they were unable to do it. Instead, the Sixers actually outscored Boston by three points over the rest of the period. Embiid had 22 points and 10 rebounds in the first half but struggled to find a rhythm in the second, finishing with 30 and 13, and his late-game blunders were costly.
▪ Tatum picked up his fourth foul two minutes after Embiid. But he stayed in the game. That’s generally Brad Stevens’s approach anyway, and in this case he had already missed most of the first half, so at some point you just have to roll with your star. He didn’t commit another foul, so the slight gamble paid off.
▪ The Celtics went to a zone defense midway through the fourth to try to collapse on Embiid. Then the Sixers got an easy put-back — boxing out in a zone offers challenges — and hit an open 3-pointer, and it was back to man-to-man.
▪ The fake crowd noise at these games alternates between being excessive, the right touch, and sort of funny. When Horford missed a first-quarter free throw, the sound of groaning fans was played. It was technically a 76ers home game.