This Celtics season has been filled with tense finishes, big comebacks, and puzzling losses. It has not included many games in which the starters could watch most of the fourth quarter from the bench. But Wednesday’s 132-96 demolition of the Magic in Orlando was surely a welcome respite during this grueling, condensed season.
Kemba Walker had 32 points and Jayson Tatum added 27 to lead the Celtics, who made 53.1 percent of their shots and 46.7 percent of their 3-pointers. Jaylen Brown sat out because of a sore ankle and Tristan Thompson was sidelined with a pectoral strain.
With the victory, the Celtics pulled into a tie for sixth in the Eastern Conference with the Heat with just six games remaining. The teams will face each other twice over the next week.
Observations from the game:
▪ It was Evan Fournier’s first game in Orlando since being traded by the Magic to the Celtics on March 25. He had struggled mightily since returning from his COVID-19-related absence before finding a rhythm in Sunday’s loss to the Trail Blazers. He built on that performance Wednesday, with 18 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists.
“I’m going to do everything I can to go back to feeling great and just being myself,” Fournier said. “That’s really what I base my day on. My No. 1 priority in life right now is feeling better. So, of course, once I feel better I’m very motivated to show everyone what I can do and how I can help this team.”
Fournier revealed Sunday that he has been dealing with coronavirus aftereffects that mimic the symptoms of a concussion, such as blurry vision and dizziness. But he said he was finally starting to improve, and this game provided another example of that.
▪ Fournier has played in just 11 games with the Celtics, leaving him little time to develop real chemistry with his teammates. But coach Brad Stevens made it clear after Wednesday’s game that he is intrigued by the Fournier/Walker pairing. They have played against each other for so long — they were division rivals for years while Walker played for the Hornets and Fournier was with the Magic — that they are familiar with each other’s games even if this is their first time on the same side.
Fournier said the fact that they both played for coach Steve Clifford during their careers might be helping, too.
“He’s the type of player that can really catch and shoot and [we] play off each other,” Fournier said, “and when I’m driving I look for my teammates. And sometimes he’s open so I just try to hit him.”
Said Walker: “I think we just had an instant chemistry. He’s just fun to play with.”
Fournier said he is also learning how to thrive with strong isolation-heavy players, such as Tatum.
“That’s something I definitely have to get better at,” Fournier said. “I have to give him space and I have to help him. When he’s going to pass the ball, to be in the window and give him an opportunity.”
▪ Walker returned after missing four games because of a strained oblique. He looked healthy and refreshed at the start, including breaking free for a pair of early transition baskets.
Prior to this recent minor injury, Walker had mostly remained healthy this season, igniting some questions about whether he should start playing in games on back-to-back nights. But the Celtics believe part of the reason Walker has stayed healthy is because they have stuck with their plan, and there is no question that he has a different level of energy and burst when he’s had a bit of a break.
“The plan has been terrific for him,” Stevens said. “He’s benefited greatly from his own hard work, the plan that our medical staff put together with him. But his execution of it is the key to it. Strengthening that knee, having those extra nights off, are all part of trying to feel great toward the end of the season.”
The Magic briefly pulled within 15 points in the third quarter before Walker scored 11 points in just 1 minute, 45 seconds and gave the Celtics a 76-50 lead.
“I was a little fresh today,” Walker said. “It definitely felt good. I’ll definitely take it, for sure.”
▪ There were few redeeming moments for the Magic. Mo Bamba’s powerful third-quarter rejection of a Tatum dunk attempt was going to be one of them. Then Bamba turned and barked something at Tatum and picked up a technical foul, and that seemed to roust Tatum, too. It had been a relatively quiet night for him to that point, and then he swished consecutive 3-pointers, scored inside, and drilled a tough step-back three. That surge ensured that he would not be needed in the fourth quarter.
▪ Orlando had just nine available players and looked very much like a team being held together by tape near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. The Magic committed seven turnovers in the game’s first six minutes, five of which were Celtics steals. It was clear then that the Celtics would probably be fine even if they did not even shoot the ball very well. Boston had 14 points off turnovers in the first quarter.