When the Celtics signed Kemba Walker to a three-year, maximum-salary deal three years ago, they envisioned him crafting powerful third quarters such as the one he produced on Saturday night.
The problem is that he now plays for the Knicks. Walker rocked Boston with an avalanche of jumpers and flipped a 15-point deficit into a lead for New York, invigorated by this fresh opportunity after spending nearly a month out of the rotation.
And on the Celtics’ bench, the angst was palpable. Coach Ime Udoka called a timeout, sensing that if his team did not snap out of its funk soon, yet another puzzling loss would be added to the list at a time when this team cannot afford many more of them.
Rather than gathering his assistants and formulating a plan, as he typically does, Udoka marched directly over to his reeling team.
“I was livid, honestly,” Udoka said, “and just really [said], ‘Wake up.’ ”
He wanted them to get back to playing like the team that had staked itself to the big halftime lead. He wanted to see urgency. He wanted to see that they cared.
And after getting lit up for 41 points in that third quarter, the Celtics clamped down in the fourth and rode Josh Richardson’s hot shooting to a 114-107 win at TD Garden.
Richardson said that in the locker room afterward, Udoka pulled back a bit and told his players that he does not want to blast them like that. But Richardson stopped his coach and said that the team needed that outburst.
“We were bleeding,” Richardson explained later. “We needed to stop it and it wasn’t happening, so we sat down and he let us have it, as he should have. I think that was a good moment for him going forward.”
Richardson led the Celtics with 27 points, Jayson Tatum added 25 points and 9 rebounds, and Payton Pritchard provided a lift off the bench with 16 points. Former Celtics Evan Fournier (32 points) and Walker (29) paced New York, but Walker was not on the floor to give his team a chance at the end.
With just over two minutes left, Fournier appeared to suffer an injury on a drive to the basket. Walker reached out and committed a foul to stop a fast break and make sure that his teammate was all right, but it was his sixth and final foul.
“I was told to foul,” Walker said. “I’m not going to lie: I didn’t know I had five. But I heard them on the sideline, they told me to foul. Very, very unfortunate situation, but that’s what I was told to do.”
These two teams entered the game with rosters that have been ravaged by COVID-19 in recent days, much like many others around the NBA.
Boston had just 10 available players, including Justin Jackson, who was signed earlier in the day using a hardship exception, and New York had nine. But this season has been a struggle for both teams, and neither had any time to sulk.
Walker was traded to the Thunder in a salary-clearing deal last summer before reaching a buyout agreement and signing with the Knicks, his hometown team. But he was removed from the rotation last month after New York was unable to recapture last season’s momentum.
His demotion did little to snap the Knicks out of their funk, however. They went 3-7 without him, and he was pushed into action Saturday mostly because there were no other options.
Walker received a nice ovation when he was introduced in the starting lineup but missed 9 of his last 10 shots of the first half. Then he caught fire in the third quarter and improbably flipped the game in New York’s favor, making 5 of 6 shots and scoring 17 points.
When Walker drilled a 3-pointer with 4:18 left, he had helped flip a 15-point deficit into a 74-69 advantage, leading a loud and rowdy contingent of Knicks fans to make their voices heard. It felt as if Walker was getting revenge on two teams at once.
“I know I should be playing,” Walker said, “so no question, it feels great.”
But the Celtics punched back behind the strong play of Richardson, who helped hold Walker scoreless in the fourth quarter while providing some punch at the other end of the court.
Boston trailed by 3 early in the fourth before Richardson hit back-to-back 3-pointers. The Celtics later led, 111-107, when Julius Randle rushed upcourt with 50 seconds left with a chance to pull his team within 2, but he missed a layup, and Richardson drilled another 3-pointer at the other end, saving the Celtics from a disastrous weekend.
“The third quarter, I made a three off a Jaylen Brown kick-out,” Richardson said. “That was probably when I was like “All right, I’m feeling good now.’ I kind of yelled at myself after that shot, because I was like, ‘Just do what you’re supposed to do on your shot, and it’s going to go in.’ ”