With three of their top four frontcourt players sidelined Friday, the Celtics knew they would have to get creative and would have little margin for error against the Wizards. But they still had Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and that will often be enough.
Tatum scored 32 points, and Brown added 27 points and 13 rebounds as Boston grabbed a 116-107 win.
Tristan Thompson, Robert Williams and Grant Williams were all out because of health and safety protocols, and 7-foot-5-inch two-way contract player Tacko Fall came off the bench and had 4 points, 8 rebounds and 3 blocks. Boston outscored Washington by 13 points over Fall’s 19 productive minutes.
The Celtics led 79-51 with just under eight minutes left in the third quarter, but Bradley Beal (41 points) erupted for 17 points over the final 7:30, helping Washington pull within 96-81 at the start of the fourth, close enough to believe they had a chance.
Then a string of sloppy, back-and-forth play went Washington’s way, and by the time Rui Hachimura drilled a 3-pointer with 7:35 left, Washington trailed just 99-95. But with Boston leading 106-101, Washington’s Thomas Bryant missed a basket inside and Brown drilled a 3-pointer from the left corner at the other end with 2:08 left, and the Celtics held on.
Observations from the game:
▪ It was unclear whether Celtics coach Brad Stevens would turn to Fall when Daniel Theis sat, or go with a smaller, more skilled lineup. But he had faith in his big man, and it was rewarded.
Soon after Fall checked in, Wizards star Russell Westbrook drove and tried to score over Fall. But Fall swallowed up the attempt, and that had to be a confidence builder. The Celtics played some zone defense with Fall in to simplify his responsibilities and keep him out of pick-and-rolls, and he protected the paint well.
“I thought he was great tonight,” Stevens said. “In a lot of ways he changed the game when he came in in the first quarter.”
The blocked and contested shots were nice, but Fall has always been able to do that. He has not always been able to run the floor like he did Friday. His conditioning and mobility have both improved. This was on display on one play early in the second quarter, when Fall threw down an alley-oop on a pass from Brown, then hurried back and blocked Robin Lopez’s shot seven seconds later.
“The game has slowed down a lot, which has made my job a lot easier,” Fall said. “I can see things that maybe a year ago I couldn’t see. I can anticipate things maybe a year ago I couldn’t anticipate.”
▪ Beal and Tatum are close friends from St. Louis, and it was fun to watch them battle at both ends. Beal got the better of Tatum on one first-quarter post-up when he swatted his shot as Tatum fell to the floor. But in the second quarter Tatum had his way on consecutive possessions, first juking Beal with a smooth baseline move, then attacking for a three-point play. The Wizards double-teamed and trapped Tatum less than most opponents, and they paid for that approach.
▪ When there are fans at TD Garden clamoring for Fall there is usually a sideshow aspect to it, but it can take away from the work he is putting in to become a legitimate NBA player. Stevens appreciates this, and he singled out Fall’s play in the locker room after the game.
“All he does is smile,” Stevens said. “He’s a great teammate, as good as I’ve been around, and he works. He’s a good one, for sure, and I’m really happy for him.”
Fall said he’s lucky to be with an organization that cares so much about his development.
“They all believed in what I can to do and how I can help them,” he said. “They stayed patient with me and that’s something that I’m really thankful for.”
▪ With 55.4 seconds left in the first quarter Tatum was called for a push-off when he extended his arm and shoved his defender on a step-back. He does this a bit too frequently and is starting to get called for it more often. It’s something he’ll have to adjust.
▪ Tatum and Brown have sometimes alternated dominant offensive performances this year, and in the first half they each claimed a quarter. Tatum was 6 for 9 for 14 points in the first, and Brown was 5 for 6 for 13 points in the second. And the third belonged to … Semi Ojeleye? The forward scored eight points in the first 2:30 of the period, as the Celtics delivered what appeared to be the knockout blow to the struggling Washington team.
▪ The now-nightly Payton Pritchard-did-good-things update. The rookie guard made all three of his 3-point attempts, including a key fourth-quarter 30-footer that helped Boston extend its lead. Two nights after his game-winning putback against the Heat, he once again slithered into the lane for a fourth-quarter offensive rebound.
“I think guys are so consumed with, obviously, Jaylen and Jayson, and all the eyes are on them, so when a shot goes up they are over-helping,” he said. “So for me, I use that to my advantage and maybe sneak to get one or two offensive rebounds and keep it alive. For me, it’s just finding little ways to help this team.”