Celtics point guard Kemba Walker’s fourth quarters have been filled with missed opportunities since he returned after missing the start of this season with a left knee issue. But he insisted that those moments would not continue for long.
And on Friday night, with Boston trailing the Clippers by a point and just over a half-minute left, Walker gobbled up a loose ball, surged into the lane, and hit one of his trademark 12-footers, ultimately sending the Celtics to a 119-115 win.
“I just want to be aggressive, get downhill, get to my spot,” Walker said. “And I just went out and did it. It was a big basket.”
Walker finished with a season-high 24 points. Jayson Tatum scored 34, and Carsen Edwards provided a lift off the bench with 16.
Jaylen Brown sat out because of left knee soreness and Marcus Smart remained out due to his calf strain, but the Clippers were without All-Star Paul George and their own defensive pest, Patrick Beverley, so the absences were essentially a wash.
The Celtics trailed at halftime, 62-51, but outscored the Clippers 38-20 in the third quarter thanks to a rejuvenated defense and 8 for 11 shooting from beyond the arc. Boston led by as many as nine points in the fourth quarter before the Clippers pushed back and took a 112-111 lead on a Lou Williams 3-pointer with 45.8 seconds left.
After a timeout, the Clippers trapped Tatum at the right arc and his pass was stolen by Nic Batum, but Tatum then knocked the ball away as it was grabbed by Walker, who took care of the rest. Kawhi Leonard missed a potential go-ahead jumper and a potential game-tying 3-pointer on the next two possessions, and the Celtics closed out the win by making six consecutive free throws.
Observations from the game:
⋅ At Purdue, Edwards was known as a streaky shooter who could become unstoppable once the right kind of streak started. Those moments have been few and far between in the NBA, but Friday was a start.
Edwards checked in during the first quarter and hit his first shot, a 3-pointer from the left arc, and he was the Celtics’ best offensive player for the remainder of the half. In the second quarter he hit another 3, then pulled up for one on the right arc on a fast-break. He added a cutting layup and a mid-range pull-up before finishing the first half with 13 points on 5 of 8 shooting.
Edwards acknowledged that making the first shot gave him a boost, but he does not want to need those boosts.
“I’m trying to learn to be able to get into a rhythm through other ways, through getting stops, trying to get a rebound or something like that,” he said. “To be able to see a shot go in, it helps a lot. I’m just trying to stay consistent.”
Edwards’s strong play earned him a second half start in place of Daniel Theis, who was sidelined with knee pain. It would be a boon for the Celtics if Edwards can offer some scoring pop off the bench, especially while the team is undermanned.
“We don’t win this game tonight without him changing the complexion of the game,” coach Brad Stevens said. “That’s really encouraging.”
⋅ Semi Ojeleye played excellent defense on Leonard in the final minute. With Boston clinging to a one-point lead he stayed low and kept Leonard from getting one of his powerful first steps that often lead to free throws. Instead, he was forced into an off-balance fadeaway that missed.
On the Clippers’ next possession, with the Celtics leading by three, Ojeleye crowded Leonard’s airspace at the 3-point line and contested his shot that caromed off the rim.
“He doesn’t get a lot of attention for what he does,” Stevens said. “But it’s not the easiest role in the world to get subbed in with 32 seconds left and guard Kawhi Leonard one-on-one. In a week’s time he’s on LeBron at the end of the game and Kawhi at the end of the game. That’s how teams work, right? We don’t need everybody to put on a cape. We just need everybody to do their job well.”
⋅ Rookie point guard Payton Pritchard returned after missing two weeks with a knee sprain. It was a pretty quick recovery for Pritchard. After he suffered the injury in a loss to the 76ers the Celtics said he would resume basketball activities in two weeks. But he was doing that within days, and on Friday he was 3 for 4 and scored 8 points.
“To be honest, I thought he looked a little tentative,” Stevens said. “I had to tell him to shoot. So the very next time he touched the ball he jacked one right in front of me. And he made it. So he’s a good listener. But I thought he looked timid in the first half and then I thought he was good in the second.”
⋅ Grant Williams was a key part of Boston’s third quarter comeback. He hit a pair of 3-pointers and came up with a steal before drawing a foul on Serge Ibaka. He continues to shoot the ball very well after a tough start beyond the arc as a rookie last year, and he continues to mostly be left wide open. At some point, defenses will have to start accounting for him more.
“He’s a guy that we think when we come into a game he knows what the other team’s trying to accomplish,” Stevens said. “He works hard to prepare himself and his skill has grown over the last 18 months. I think his comfort level [has too]. And I think in the last month there’s a clear difference from the first month of the season.”
⋅ Stevens said Theis complained about some knee pain prior to the game but was cleared to play after warming up. Then he appeared a step slow during his two first-half stints.
“I don’t think it’s anything big,” Stevens said. “He sat on a couple of occasions last year for the same thing, but this stretch is insane. We just have to make sure we’re smart about all these guys, but certainly high-minute players.”
⋅ With Brown out, Stevens went with a big lineup featuring Tristan Thompson at center, Theis at power forward, Williams at small forward, and Tatum at shooting guard. Then the Clippers outrebounded Boston in the first quarter anyway, 16-5. Theis’s knee injury made the decision easier, but Stevens deployed more small-ball groups as Boston mounted its third-quarter comeback.
“We couldn’t guard them in our traditional stuff,” he said. “We were late to shooters and getting spread out all over the place, so we had to change, and switch a lot more and do that stuff. Guys did a good job communicating and team rebounding.”