The Celtics signed Kemba Walker for nights such as these, when Jayson Tatum struggled to make a shot, when Jaylen Brown was unavailable with shoulder bursitis. They signed Walker to save the day — not as much as he did during his Charlotte years, but when the Celtics needed him catapult and carry the offense, which he did on Thursday.
The Celtics’ 99-86 win over the Phoenix Suns at TD Garden was critical. They are vying for the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, with the New York Knicks having seized that spot with an eight-game winning streak while the Atlanta Hawks are playing remarkable ball since Nate McMillan took over as coach.
Boston came off a disappointing home loss to the Chicago Bulls on Monday and were now playing one of the elite teams in the Western Conference, without Brown, who missed his second consecutive game.
The Celtics needed an engaged and effective Walker and he delivered, scoring 32 points on 11-for-17 shooting and outdueling Chris Paul on a night when the Suns looked exhausted at times in the second game of a back-to-back.
That hardly mattered to the Celtics. They need every win they can get, especially in games in which they appear to be underdogs. Walker’s performance offset another subpar performance from Tatum, who missed 14 of his 17 shot attempts and finished with 15 points.
Walker scored 19 of his points in the first half, when the Celtics stymied the Suns defensively and jumped out to a 16-point lead. Walker was moving with speed and grace not seen since his knee injury. He was attacking the rim, jabbing and spinning, or knocking down 3-pointers with a flick of the wrist.
“I was just taking the shots available to me; making the plays available to me,” Walker said. “Whatever the defense gave me, I tried to respond to that.”
It was the Walker the Celtics have been waiting for since the first two months of his first season here. He has shown flashes of that in that span, especially in the past couple of weeks. But Walker’s game is predicated so much on quickness and confidence that it’s critical he utilizes both of those tools as the playoffs approach.
Defensively, Walker took three charges against Phoenix’s All-Star guard Devin Booker, helping foul him out of the game. Walker’s peak engagement in games is when he’s taking charges. He had no issue throwing his body in front of a driving Booker.
“I think for the most part it’s me letting guys know if I could take him, we all could take him,” Walker said. “It’s about sacrifice, about jumping in front of a guy. I want to win and plays like that shows it. Just trying to lead by example.”
The Celtics are saving Walker’s knee for the postseason. He is not expected to play Friday at Brooklyn because it’s a second game of a back-to-back, but he should be ready to make his return to Charlotte on Sunday afternoon.
Walker declared himself healthy, which is exactly what the Celtics want to hear with three weeks left in the regular season.
“I’m feeling good,” he said. “I’m feeling great. I’ve been doing a great job of taking care of my body. To answer your question, yeah I feel really good.”
This is a difficult stretch for the Celtics. Brooklyn is an elite team while Charlotte is trying to claim a playoff spot despite a rash of injuries. There are no gimmes in this three-game stretch and the Celtics helped themselves greatly by taking the first.
Walker perhaps knew it was his night when he fired up a 3-pointer after unsuccessfully pump faking and trying to draw contact and it swished through the hoop for a 90-76 lead with 4:56 left. Tatum then responded after a rough night with five consecutive points and Boston won for the ninth time in the past 11 games.
Paul countered with 22 points, 8 assists, and 8 rebounds. He remains one of the league’s elite guards but Walker was better Thursday, looking like the top five point guard of his past, a sparkling shooter with the ability to get to the rim with his crafty moves and first step, the ability to use his shoulder to fake defenders and create space.
The Celtics have missed that guy the past several months as he has tried to regain strength in his left knee — his prowess on the floor and the confidence to know he can emerge as that viable third option. On this night, Walker made a third of the Celtics’ shots as they struggled to score and were inundated with turnovers (20).
Celtics coach Brad Stevens ended his press conference after approximately 90 seconds because of the tragic passing of Boston native Terrence Clarke on Thursday night, who had declared for the NBA Draft following one season at Kentucky. It’s heartbreaking news for Stevens, who still follows the college basketball circuit closely, after one of the more impressive wins of the season.
“To be honest, I was walking down the hallway and heard this news about Terrence Clarke,” Stevens said. “Not sure how much I want to talk about the game when you consider a Boston kid. I’ve read what you read. Those kids are important to us here. I never met him. I know my son looks up to him.
“Hard to talk about basketball with even the idea that it’s floating out there.”