SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The Celtics’ 111-109 win over the Kings on Wednesday will be remembered for the game-winning shot Gordon Hayward made with 2 seconds left, an important moment for both Boston and Hayward, whose return this season has had more valleys than peaks.
But the scene that perhaps best symbolized this night — and this sudden surge by the reinvigorated Celtics — came a bit later, as Marcus Morris sat at his locker after the game and a medical staffer tended to the gash on his knee.
The Celtics led by just one point with about 18 seconds left when Marcus Smart had the ball knocked away just past midcourt. The Celtics said he was fouled — and maybe he was — but that didn’t matter in that moment. All Morris knew was that if this fast-moving, hard-charging Kings team collected that loose ball, the good feelings the Celtics had generated the past few days could be squashed.
So he sprawled across the floor, scraped and bloodied his knee, and wrestled the ball away from two Kings and called a timeout. It was a simple play, but it was another example of how these Celtics appear to be reclaiming the gritty, scrappy style that once defined them.
“I scratched the [expletive] out of it,” Morris said later. “I don’t even know how to dive. I just dove to get the ball. I tried to take a page out of [Marcus Smart’s] book, put my body on the line for the team.”
The Celtics, who entered this daunting four-game road trip having lost 5 of their past 6 games, are not done just yet. After grabbing an emphatic win over the mighty Warriors on Tuesday, they took a two-hour bus ride to Sacramento to face the young and well-rested Kings.
Then they found out they would have to do it without Kyrie Irving, who was out with a thigh contusion.
With Irving sitting behind the bench and encouraging and applauding them throughout, they clawed to their second victory in a row.
“These nights are tough, and you just kind of have to gut it out,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “And I thought our guys, we haven’t always done that [this season]. And that’s been another hallmark of kind of our last few years, so it was encouraging to get this win.”
The Celtics led, 107-104, with 45 seconds left when the Kings tried to free up Buddy Hield for a 3-pointer. But the Celtics swarmed him and eventually sent a double-team, and the play took quite a while to transpire before Willie Cauley-Stein threw in an alley-oop with 25.8 seconds left.
That forced the Kings to attempt to get a steal or to foul, because there was not enough time to simply stand back and try to force a miss. And at first it appeared they had done the former, when Smart lost control of the ball. But Morris gathered it before anyone else could.
After a timeout, the Kings fouled Jayson Tatum, who hit both free throws to stretch the lead to three. But at the other end Hayward clipped Hield on a 3-pointer with 7.6 seconds left, and the sharpshooter hit all three free throws to tie the score.
Boston was out of timeouts, and Stevens directed either Hayward or Terry Rozier to push the ball upcourt and go for the win. Hayward took the inbounds pass and took four strong dribbles down the left side before drilling an off-balance 9-foot runner with two seconds left.
“I think it felt good more than anything because I almost lost us the game with the foul,” Hayward said, “So kind of trying to get that one back for us. I think more than anything happy for our team, happy that we’ve found a way to win these last two games, especially with what we were going through.”
The Kings called timeout, but Harrison Barnes’s desperation 3 never had a chance. As Hayward completed a post-game on-court interview, his teammates slithered up behind him and dumped cups of water on his head.
“A lot of people have been trying to write him off, saying he’s not going to be what he was,” Morris said of Hayward. “As a player, that’s tough. He’s doing a good job of bottling all that in and continuing to play and continuing to perform at a high level for us. We’re just hoping he just continues to go, continues to grow, and continue to get better, man. We’re going to ride with him.”
The Celtics now trail the fourth-place 76ers by one and a half games in the Eastern Conference standings with 16 games remaining. And this win had a bit more significance, too, because the Celtics will receive the Kings’ first-round pick at the end of this season, so every Sacramento loss could slightly improve the value of that choice.
Al Horford had 21 points, 11 rebounds, and 7 assists for the Celtics, and Tatum added 24 points. Boston made 50.6 percent of its shots. Now it will look to maintain its momentum as it heads to Los Angeles, where games against the Lakers and Clippers are looming.
“Every team has to find a togetherness in competing,” Stevens said. “Some teams it takes 60 games, some teams it takes 20 games, and bad teams never get there. You hope it took us 60 games, but we’ll see. We haven’t proven ourselves to be great at that yet for a long stretch of time.”