Despite his night of missed jumpers and missed opportunities, Celtics star Kemba Walker was left with one chance to wipe it all away and convert a shot he has made so many times before.
With Boston trailing the Lakers by 1 point in the final seconds, Walker came up with a steal and fired a pass ahead to Jaylen Brown. The ball was knocked away before Brown recovered it, and the ball ended up in the hands of Walker, who drove and rose for a 15-foot stepback, but it thudded off the rim and Daniel Theis’s putback was no good, allowing Los Angeles to survive with a 96-95 win at TD Garden.
Walker finished 1 for 12 with 4 points.
“I would have loved to help my teammates more tonight, but it didn’t go that way,” Walker said. “I have to keep working, just find myself a little bit, find my rhythm, find my spots, just continue to get better.”
For the Celtics, the rough finish was the least of their concerns. Guard Marcus Smart suffered a calf strain when he took a bad step while playing defense with 10:30 left in the fourth quarter. He went down in pain and had to be helped off the court and is scheduled to undergo an MRI on Sunday.
“Marcus is essential to our team, man,” Brown said. “He’s been great.”
Jayson Tatum had 30 points for Boston and Brown added 28, but it was not quite enough.
Dennis Schroder converted a three-point play with 1:40 left that put the Lakers in control, 96-89, but the Celtics pushed back with a pair of Walker free throws and a Tatum 15-footer. After a turnover by LeBron James the Celtics regained possession with 39.4 seconds left. Tatum attacked quickly and hit a runner with 32.4 seconds to play, making it 96-95, but that was as close as Boston would get.
Observations from the game:
▪ While Walker has hardly been dominant since making his season debut Jan. 17, he had made 21 of 43 shots over the last three games prior to this one, so this could just be a hiccup. Nevertheless, he acknowledged after the loss that he let some early struggles in this game get into his head.
“I thought tonight I got frustrated at myself and it kind of put myself in a bad place,” he said. “I’m not even a player like that to really get frustrated. I’m more smiling, and I wasn’t that tonight. I got into my own head and mentally I hurt myself and I can’t do that for this team.”
▪ The Celtics seemed to be making a clear effort to build Walker back up after the game Brown said he would like that last shot from Walker 10 out of 10 times. Tatum said they need to do a better job of finding him early in games and to get his momentum going.
Coach Brad Stevens pointed out that the Lakers’ defense was partly designed around stopping him.
“We’re riding Kemba,” he said. “He’s a really good player who really cares about his team and really wants to be a part of something special with guys that are going to give for each other. And sometimes it’s not your night. But more often than not, it is his night. And we believe strongly in that.”
▪ The final moments were about as frenetic as final moments can get, and while the final result wasn’t great, the Celtics had to be pleased with most of what preceded it. With Los Angeles trying to extend its lead Semi Ojeleye held his ground against Anthony Davis at the top of the key, with some help from Walker, who grabbed the ball after Davis tried to tap it back to Dennis Schroder.
Stevens had one timeout left and could have used it here, but the Lakers were scrambling. Yes, a timeout would have settled things down, but it also would have allowed Los Angeles to put its preferred lineup on the floor and set its defense.
“You can get great looks and great opportunities that may be even better than what you can draw up, likely are better than what you can draw up against that length and that athleticism in a scramble situation like we had,” Stevens said. “And I loved it.”
Brown streaked down the left wing, and Walker led him with an outlet pass. But speedy Lakers guard Alex Caruso surged into the play and knocked the ball away, saving a Brown dunk and probably a loss. Then Brown did well to recover the loose ball in the right corner. He has been perhaps Boston’s most dangerous offensive player and could have just lowered his head and attacked with time running down.
But the numbers didn’t add up. Caruso was at his side and Davis, an All-Defense performer, was in front of him, so he passed to Ojeleye at the right arc, who quickly swung another pass to Walker on the left side.
Schroder closed out and Walker, who got him off balance with a pump fake and then had plenty of options. It was no surprise that he went to his favorite one, taking two hard dribbles before stepping back for an open midrange jumper. But it was no good.
Theis had a good look on his putback, but a strong box out by Montrezl Harrell had thrown off his balance just enough to make it a challenge.
▪ The game ended on that play, but it was not lost there. The Celtics started the fourth quarter with a 7-point lead and then saw it washed away with a 25-11 run in large part because of seven turnovers. They had eight turnovers over the game’s first three quarters.
▪ The Celtics have struggled defensively this season, but this game offered some encouraging signs on that front. The Lakers became just the third Boston opponent to be held below 100 points this year, and while they missed plenty of open 3-pointers, very little came easily for James or Davis, who combined to go 18 for 42.
“I thought our guys, especially at the end of the game, the last two minutes, did a great job flying around,” Stevens said, “did a great job of showing those guys multiple bodies and making it as tough as possible for them to get good looks.”
Added Brown: “Those two are a handful, but I think we did a pretty good job,” Brown said. “There were times when we could have rotated with a little more intensity and things like that, but I think I was proud of the way we handled our coverages.”
▪ Everything else aside, it has to sting the Celtics to lose a game in which Tatum and Brown combined to go 25 for 37 and the Lakers were playing the sixth game of their road trip. A missed opportunity.
▪ Tatum wore a purple armband in honor of the one-year anniversary of Kobe Bryant’s death.