Usual stars, unlikely standouts lift shorthanded Celtics
About two hours before the Celtics faced the Mavericks on Wednesday, coach Brad Stevens was asked which players could expect a boost in playing time with Jaylen Brown and Marcus Morris sidelined.
“Any of the 11 that are dressed,” he said. “All 11 have got to be ready to go and ready to make an impact for us.”
And sure enough, by halftime, all 11 available Celtics had played, and some unlikely standouts had a big impact, as Boston overcame a 12-point second-half deficit and grabbed a 97-90 win, its fourth in a row.
Third-string point guard Shane Larkin had been used sparingly recently as he nursed a bruised tailbone, and he’d made just 1 of 15 shots since Nov. 12. On Wednesday he made three 3-pointers and had 11 points and two assists.
“Just mentally, I’m just sitting over there telling myself, ‘If Coach calls my name, then go in there and do what you do,’ ” Larkin said. “And I just do what I do.”
Daniel Theis, playing against German countryman Dirk Nowitzki, added 7 points and a career-high 11 rebounds. Guerschon Yabusele and Abdel Nader, who played for the Maine Red Claws last Friday, even had an important first-half stint in which both hit 3-pointers.
Of course, the Celtics also received contributions from more familiar and essential sources, as Kyrie Irving scored 9 of his 23 points in the fourth quarter, Al Horford added 17 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists, and Jayson Tatum had 17 points and 10 rebounds.
With the score tied at 85 and less than five minutes left, the Celtics crafted a game-clinching run. It started with a Marcus Smart layup off a feed from Horford. Then Irving blitzed upcourt for a layup before adding another layup as he was fouled.
Watch the Celtics’ defense spark a transition basket
One year after Isaiah Thomas enthralled fans here with his fourth-quarter performances, Irving continues to do the same, sometimes even more spectacularly than Thomas did.
“It’s fun for me because you really just have to blow into your bag of tricks and prepare yourself for whatever the defense is about to throw at you,” he said. “Sometimes you catch the defense on their heels.”
The Celtics shot 41.4 percent from the field, snapping a streak of five games in which they had finished 50 percent or better. But it didn’t matter. During their stunning 22-4 start to this season they have alternated between a menacing defense and a relentless offense.
There will be nights when they thrive in both areas simultaneously, but they have consistently shown that most often, just one will do. In this game, the Mavericks made just 39.5 percent of their shots. It was the fourth time this season that Boston held a team to less than 40 percent.
The Celtics were particularly pestering in the fourth quarter, when Dallas went just 6 of 23 from the field (26.1 percent) and its 12-point third-quarter edge felt quite distant.
“We always try to keep it within distance, especially if we’re not particularly playing well on both ends of the floor,” Irving said. “In the second half, we just have to raise our level. Otherwise teams are going to kick our butts.”
Before the game it was announced that Morris would sit out because of lingering knee soreness and that Brown would miss the game because of a swollen eye. Neither player is expected to be sidelined much longer, if any longer, but on this night the Celtics still had to find a way to make up for their combined 55.5 minutes and 27.4 points per game.
Dallas led, 26-24, at the start of the second quarter, and Stevens began to experiment with some unusual groups. During one stretch, the lineup included Yabusele, Nader, Theis, Larkin, and backup guard Terry Rozier.
Watch Terry Rozier help clinch the win with a breakaway dunk
The group handled itself adequately, hitting four 3-pointers over a stretch of less than three minutes. The last one, by Nader, pulled Boston within 37-36. Stevens probably did not need to go this deep into his bench, and he almost seemed to be using the opportunity to see what some of these young players could offer.
“Those guys are working harder than any of us every day,” Horford said, “because they’re in the gym, they’re getting extra shots, extra conditioning. It’s good to see them get rewarded.”
But Dallas struck back, drilling four threes over a stretch of just 1:55. With 29.7 seconds left, Dennis Smith blitzed past Irving for a layup to give Dallas a 57-47 lead at the break.
Boston briefly fell behind by 12 points at the start of the third quarter before finding its rhythm on offense, as Tatum and Horford hit back-to-back threes to unleash a 12-0 run that was capped by an Irving layup. With 6:20 left, Horford hit a three from the right corner to give the Celtics a 62-61 lead, their first since the opening quarter.
The Mavericks led at the start of the fourth, 73-70, before Boston’s backups provided another lift, sparked by Larkin. During one stretch he tossed an alley-oop to Theis, drilled a 3-pointer, and soared in for a rebound over the 6-foot-10-inch Dwight Powell as the Celtics surged in front, 80-73.
Dallas tied the score at 81 with 7:23 left after back-to-back threes by Nowitzki and J.J. Barea. But Irving closed out the win. There could have been a temptation for Stevens to put Irving in the game for longer stretches to fill the void. But the coach views the season through a much larger prism than one night, and so Irving played just 32 minutes, right at his season average. Of course, he was there when Boston needed him most.
“It all starts with Kyrie for us,” Horford said. “Everybody knows that.”