LOS ANGELES — You have to give Brad Stevens credit for his steadfast refusal to allow emotion or short sample sizes affect whom he decides to play. Instead he has given some of his younger and unproven players platforms to prove themselves, and Friday was an example of a player flourishing under those circumstances.
Carsen Edwards enjoyed his best game as a professional in the Celtics’ stunning 119-115 win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday at Staples Center. It’s been a difficult NBA stint so far for Edwards, the prolific scorer out of Purdue who played little and proved little during his rookie season and has just started to contribute a third into his second season.
Edwards scored 16 points, including three significant fourth-quarter free throws as the Celtics responded after a rather listless first half with 68 points in the second half to prevail.
“We don’t win the game without him,” Stevens said of Edwards. “He changed the complexion of the game. That’s really encouraging.”
These Celtics are becoming hard to understand at times. They began this trip with a solid win over the Golden State Warriors and then lost the next night at Sacramento, blowing an 11-point third-quarter lead.
On Friday, with Marcus Smart nursing a calf injury, potential All-Star Jaylen Brown was scratched because of a sore knee, leaving the Celtics without two starters against one of the best teams in the Western Conference. The Clippers were without former All-Star Paul George (injured foot) but still possessed one of the deepest rosters in the NBA.
Los Angeles raced out to a 16-point first half lead, shredding the Celtics defense. They were lucky to be down 11 at halftime. But an interesting development in that first half was Edwards’s 13 points, which essentially saved the Celtics from embarrassment.
Stevens even chose to start Edwards in the second half because of a knee injury to Daniel Theis. And he was a plus-10 in his 13 second-half minutes, the third-best clip on the team in that span.
What had to please Stevens and also serve as a reward for his patience was the performance of the reserves. While Kemba Walker and Jayson Tatum combined for 34 points on 13-for-26 shooting after halftime, the rest of the Celtics were 11 for 20 for 34 points.
A team that’s been maligned all season for its lack of bench support won Friday because the bench offered significant support. You could say the most encouraging sign Friday was the breakout game from Walker, who looked like his Charlotte self in scoring 10 of his 24 points in the final quarter, including a pair of jumpers in the final 4:15 to seal one of the more impressive wins of the season.
But the long-term key may have been how comfortable Edwards looked and how effective he was. The Celtics have been desperate for a reliable bench scorer, a sparkplug guard to come off the bench and hit 3-pointers. That was supposed to be Jeff Teague but his stint in Boston has been disastrous so far.
Since his 7-for-15 shooting, 19-point effort in the season opener against the Milwaukee Bucks, he is 28 for 98 from the field and 20 for 70 from 2-point range (both 28.5 percent). Teague is at the point where he is passing up open shots. He reluctantly attempted and missed what could have been a back-breaking 3-pointer. His teammates were right behind him on the Celtics bench, arms raised in anticipation of a swish, but Teague failed to hit his mark.
It appears Edwards has passed Teague in the Stevens pecking order and Teague’s minutes may be reduced even more when Smart returns. It’s the right decision because Edwards is proving to be a useful NBA player and proven to be an improved shooter in a smaller sample size (21 of 41).
“Last year it was just hard to get minutes on that team,” Stevens said. “We were so deep at the wing and so interchangeable in that group. Even when there were minutes available you didn’t want to play small but he just kind of stayed with it and he’s had a pretty good couple of months and his opportunity showed up a couple of weeks ago in a game. You thought he would play a role [Friday].”
What the Celtics proved Friday is they can compete with the best teams in the NBA and win. They were a Walker jumper at the buzzer from beating the Lakers last week and have the talent — and execution at times — to beat elite teams. And this victory occurred with Brown on the bench, anxiously holding on to a basketball as he watched Tatum, Walker, and the rest of his teammates eke out a victory.
What will separate the Celtics from being a competitor and legitimate contender is the performance of the supporting cast. Can the Celtics rely on Edwards to hit threes and play with confidence and execute off the bench? He has proved he deserves an opportunity while the rest of the supporting cast showed they are capable of making plays and executing the game plan in clutch moments.
It was a significant step forward and there will be more reinforcements on the way with Brown, Smart, and the player acquired from the $28.5 million trade exception likely before the March 25 trade deadline.
“This was a good game for me, this was good to play and I want to try to continue to build off this,” Edwards said. “I have so much to work on. I’m just trying to stay consistent.”