The Celtics decided at the start of this season that Kemba Walker would not play in games on consecutive nights, allowing him to rest his left knee that has given him so many issues during his Boston tenure.
Walker has made it clear he does not love the approach, but he understands it. And during this condensed, relentless season, it’s hard to argue with the results. Walker did not play against the Hawks on Wednesday, and on Friday had his most complete game of the year, erupting for a season-high 32 points to lead the Celtics to a 118-112 win over the Pacers at TD Garden that snapped a three-game losing streak.
Walker’s four highest scoring games of this season have all come after he sat out the second game of a back-to-back set.
“I don’t think we win the game without his will,” coach Brad Stevens said.
The Celtics had a 98-88 lead early in the fourth quarter, but they have shown during this messy stretch that big leads can turn into big problems quickly. And for a moment, this one appeared headed in that direction. The Pacers needed less than a minute to go on a 9-0 run and pull within 98-97.
But this time Walker was there to settle his team before it was too late. He stretched the lead with consecutive mid-range jumpers, and with 3:47 left blew past Myles Turner for a layup, giving Boston a 110-101 advantage.
The Pacers made a final push, pulling within 112-109 on a Domantas Sabonis layup with 1:24 left. But Justin Holiday’s potentially game-tying 3-pointer from the left corner rattled out, and Walker found Daniel Theis for a 3 at the other end to seal the win.
“I try to bring that aspect to the game every night, my leadership,” Walker said. “Try to use my voice as much as possible to keep my teammates up when things are not going well. I know guys look to me in situations like that and just try to stay upbeat, just try to stay positive, and just bring that energy to the team.”
The Celtics needed Walker’s explosion, because it was another quiet night for All-Stars Jayson Tatum and Brown. Tatum made just 4 of 18 shots and is 8 for 38 over his last two games. Brown was 5 for 12. But there was help from the bench, with Jeff Teague scoring 14 points and Robert Williams adding 14 points and 11 rebounds.
“Those guys aren’t always going to be able to do what they’ve done,” Stevens said of Brown and Tatum. “And so we do have to pick up for them.”
Observations from the game:
▪ The Pacers made their first five 3-pointers and took an 18-4 lead before Walker gave Boston’s offense a much-needed jolt. During one three-minute stretch he drew a shooting foul, hit a 3-pointer, fed Theis inside, came up with a steal, hit another 3-pointer, drew another shooting foul, and assisted on a Payton Pritchard 3-pointer.
“I think that no matter how everyone is playing, when [we trailed] 18-4, he was the loudest voice, he willed us back into that thing,” Stevens said. “And then now, we were back on our footing, we have a little bit of confidence, which has been shot this week. But that’s what really good players do, and that’s what veterans do.”
▪ Speaking of days off, Tatum sure looks like he could use one. Yes, he continues to face some traps and double-teams, but he has not had his usual burst recently and has mostly struggled in general since having COVID-19. At the start of the third quarter he looked to attack, and even had a one-handed dunk attempt rejected by the rim.
Tatum was named an All-Star starter in place of the injured Kevin Durant on Friday. He plans to play in that game, but at least All-Star weekend will be condensed to just a one-day event and Tatum will have some time to recover afterward. Stevens said the team has talked about adding rest days for other players moving forward.
▪ When Tatum is struggling it’s usually difficult for Boston to generate offense, but the bench played an essential role Friday. That’s become fairly normal for Robert Williams and Pritchard (9 points, 4 rebounds), but Teague’s contributions were less expected.
Prior to playing 28 minutes against the Hawks on Wednesday, Teague had played a total of just 31 minutes over Boston’s previous eight games. On Friday he did well probing and finding contact, tying for the team lead with eight free throws.
“[Sitting out] is just something that happens,” Teague said, “and I’m going to continue to grow as a player and as a person. I think those DNPs just made me want to go a little harder so I just tried to get some extra reps in and I’m going to continue to keep doing that.”
Stevens said Teague was one of the few Celtics who played well against the Hawks, and he remembered that Teague and Pritchard had a nice stretch together in the Dec. 29 win over the Pacers.
“I was really happy for Jeff,” Stevens said. “This has not been an easy transition for him. He didn’t play the way he wanted to or didn’t feel good about it. But he’s been putting in as much work as any of our young players over the last two weeks and that’s showing itself.”
▪ There was an unusual moment early in the first quarter when Theis appeared to hit a mid-range jumper as the shot-clock buzzer went off. It was initially counted as a basket, but the NBA’s replay center in New York reviewed it while play was live and ruled that it came after the buzzer, and the points were deducted as the players ran up and down the court. This isn’t always possible, but any time replays can be handled this way, they should be.