The Celtics knew what was coming, and still couldn’t stop it
CHARLOTTE — On Monday morning, Celtics guard Kyrie Irving was asked about this recent stretch of high-scoring NBA games, including the 60-point output by Charlotte’s Kemba Walker on Saturday against Philadelphia.
He implored teams to double team these blazing-hot players, get the ball out of their hands, make someone else score.
Ten hours later, the Celtics were in an eerily similar situation against Walker, trying desperately to protect a lead against a player who can score in bunches.
Walker quickly eliminated a 10-point deficit with a stirring stretch as he scored 18 of Charlotte’s 20 points in a game-deciding run. The Celtics were left helpless, regardless of whom they chose to defend Walker. He finally sent the Celtics to another disheartening defeat with a 3-pointer over the outstretched arms of Al Horford to clinch a 117-112 win Monday night.
It was the Celtics’ first loss at Charlotte since Dec. 10, 2014, and they were left to lament their inability to contain the NBA’s leading scorer. Walker scored 43 — 21 in the fourth quarter — and the next highest Hornets scorer was Jeremy Lamb, who scored 18, but zero in the fourth.
“He did exactly what we talked about this morning,” Irving said. “He came off every pick-and-roll and put our bigs in some tough positions to guard him in those high pick-and-rolls. He did exactly what we thought he was going to do.
“Usually you just go to a double team or something simple to get the ball out of his hands but we felt pretty comfortable with Marcus [Smart] and Al [Horford] guarding him one on one. We just live with the results after that.”
The Celtics played with more effort and better execution following their disappointing loss Saturday against Utah, and they appeared a couple of plays from sealing this game when Daniel Theis scored on a layup for a 98-88 lead with 9:37 left.
The Celtics didn’t score again until the 5:55 mark.
Jayson Tatum’s layup gave the Celtics their final lead at 102-101 and Walker quickly countered with another 3-pointer.
Smart chased him around screens but Walker used his quickness to create space. When he wasn’t splashing the 3-ball, he attacked the basket and got fouled. The Celtics, meanwhile, missed 13 of 20 fourth-quarter shots and made just one 3-pointer.
Their five wasn’t good enough to overcome Walker alone.
“Our fourth quarter defensively obviously wasn’t very good; Kemba’s on such a roll and draws so much attention, that even when they shoot, you’re open to some rebounding disadvantages,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “I think you have to maximize your offensive and defensive possessions at the end of the game. You saw us do a great job of it against Toronto and not quite as good [Monday].”
In a play that summarizes the Celtics’ season, Walker proved human by missing a 17-footer but got another chance with an offensive rebound and then missed a three. With the Celtics completely out of position for a rebound, Walker collected his own miss and then fed ageless Tony Parker for a pull-up jumper and a 112-108 Charlotte lead with two minutes left.
Irving (27 points) tried countering with a pull-up 27-footer but missed. It wasn’t his night, not compared with Walker.
“They got offensive rebounds with 2:07 left on the clock, it’s draining when you play good defense and get a crack at it and you’ve got to play defense for another 24 seconds,” Irving said. “That drained us a little bit but we still have a chance to cut into the lead but failed to do so.”
Irving was frustrated that the Celtics couldn’t stop Walker, even though he advised his teammates in the huddle that he was the only Hornet shooting. Parker and Walker scored Charlotte’s last 27 points.
“He was steady for them. I came to the bench and I was just like ‘There’s just one primary guy out there that’s killing us,’ Irving said. “He pretty much kept them in the game. Everybody else was at their averages or a little bit lower so, us as a team, we just have to be more conscientious of that. He was the only one that was being aggressive doing some things to generate offense. Next time we play them, it will be a different story.”
Meanwhile, Stevens changed his starting lineup, bringing Gordon Hayward off the bench for the first time in 339 games dating to his Utah days. Still, he played nearly 31 minutes but the move did nothing to help his offense, as he finished with 4 points on 1-for-6 shooting.
Aron Baynes got the start but he played just 7:22 and Jaylen Brown exited the game with 3:27 left in the third quarter but did not return. Stevens went with Hayward and Smart for most of the fourth quarter as he continues to try to find effective lineup combinations, to mixed results.
“I did see some more of what I would refer to as ‘Celtics basketball’ than I’ve seen at least over the better part of the season,” Stevens said. “I leave a lot more encouraged now than discouraged when I came into the game. [The change] was more about getting Gordon in the right groups for him. We’re still going to be a work in progress, obviously, nothing is set in stone with that.”