When the Celtics’ record dipped two games below .500 following their loss to the Hawks last week, coach Brad Stevens said that the final four games before the All-Star break would become the most critical of this condensed season.
Boston’s stars were struggling, its top defender was injured, and its shallow bench seemed to offer little help. But most of all, Stevens wanted to make sure this group did not fracture. And Tuesday night, the Celtics continued their mild resurgence with a 117-112 win over the Clippers, their third in a row overall.
“They’ve stayed together when they easily could have been pulled apart by the noise,” Stevens said. “I think you have to be able to resist that when you’re at this level and you’re going through the rollercoaster of a season.”
Kemba Walker led Boston with 25 points and Jaylen Brown added 18. Robert Williams had 13 points, 8 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 blocks off the bench. The Celtics made 50 percent of their 3-pointers. Clippers All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard sat out because of back spasms.
The Celtics were ahead 102-100 midway through the fourth before they went on a 9-0 run. The Clippers pulled within 113-109 but Paul George (32 points) missed a 3-pointer with 28 seconds left and Williams grabbed the rebound and was fouled. He made one of two free throws before George hit a 3-pointer that made it 114-112 with 10.9 seconds remaining.
After a timeout the inbounds pass went to Daniel Theis, a 64 percent free-throw shooter, who was fouled. But he calmly hit both attempts.
Observations from the game:
▪ Walker is in the midst of one of his best stretches as a Celtic. Over his last four games he’s averaging 24.8 points and 5.9 assists per contest, three of which were Boston wins. When he was struggling with his shooting earlier this season there was a lot of talk about how he might have lost a step, but he insisted that it was more of a mental issue than a physical one, and he appears to have figured that out. Everything looks better when the ball goes through the hoop.
“I’m just playing the right way and taking whatever the defense gives me,” Walker said. “And the shots are just falling, that’s it. But I just want to stay consistent, keep working on my game, keep continuing to get better, keep pushing my teammates to continue to get better.”
▪ It will most often depend on matchups, but based on the solid play of all three of his centers, there will be times when Stevens has tough decisions to make about which one to use to close the game.
He has mostly left that job to Theis in recent years, mostly because he has provided the most defensive versatility of Boston’s big men and has been a reliable foul shooter, even though his numbers there are down this season. But Williams’s emergence will make the choice tougher at times. Williams played 10:05 in the fourth quarter Tuesday and registered 6 points, 5 rebounds, 3 assists and a block.
“Being on the floor in crunch time really is a major learning situation for me,” Williams said. “I obviously want to make the right decisions but the more I’m out there, the more comfortable I get.”
Williams added some critical plays in the final minute. He grabbed an offensive rebound on a Walker miss, won a jump ball after the Clippers won a challenge, and rebounded a George missed 3-pointer.
His ascension has been one of the pleasant surprises of Boston’s first half of this season. On Tuesday, Stevens said that it was invaluable for Williams to learn under veterans Aron Baynes and Al Horford as a rookie two seasons ago. Last year he was slowed by a hip injury before showing signs of promise in the Orlando bubble.
“He’s on a great trajectory, really helping us,” Stevens said. “One of the things about Rob that sometimes does not get talked about enough is that he’s a competitor. He wants to win, he plays hard, goes after rebounds, and he’s learning how to take advantage of what he does best at both ends of the floor.”
▪ Williams was excellent, but Boston received a lift from its entire bench. The reserves combined to make 13 of 20 shots overall and 7 of 11 3-pointers, totaling 38 points and 14 rebounds.
“I think we’re getting better playing together with that group,” Stevens said. “I think Rob’s threat at the rim really helps that. But those guys can’t just be bystanders. They’ve got to be aggressive, they’ve got to be assertive, they can’t play passive. And I thought that they backed that up a couple games in a row.”
▪ George had 32 points to lead the Clippers, continuing the recent string of powerhouse individual performances against this Celtics defense, including 46 points by Wizards guard Bradley Beal on Sunday. Brown said that despite these recent wins, that has been an irritating trend.
“A lot of players are coming in here and scoring a lot of points,” he said. “That should bother us more. It bothers me, and as we get [Marcus] Smart back and we get more connected on that side of the ball, we should look to stop some of their better players rather than letting them do what they want.”
The return of Smart, a first-team all-defense performer, should certainly help. He remains out with a calf strain but is expected to return soon after the All-Star break.
▪ Former Celtics forward Marcus Morris sparked the Clippers’ rally from an eight-point deficit in the first half with his solid shooting. But in the final minute of the second quarter he took an inadvertent elbow to the back of the head from Brown and crumpled to the ground. Morris was down for several minutes and appeared wobbly when he finally stood up. Then he had to stop twice to gather himself as he walked back to the bench. Morris went to the locker room and was ruled out with a concussion. He had 10 points in the first half.