SAN FRANCISCO — When Ky Bowman’s alley-oop attempt slipped out of his hands and sailed wide right and Willie Cauley-Stein leaped and guided it into the basket, you figured the Celtics were done for the night. The Warriors were making winning plays, snatching offensive rebounds and were receiving some rare good fortune after a miserable start to the season.
Cauley-Stein’s bucket put the Warriors up, 97-92, on the Celtics with 2:37 left in the game. The nine-game winning streak was in serious jeopardy. The Celtics spent the entire second half putting the Warriors at the free throw line, unable to stop Alec Burks from getting to the basket or keep Omari Spellman off the offensive glass.
Inasmuch as this year’s team doesn’t like comparisons to last year’s, that Kyrie Irving-led squad would have lost this game, collapsed under the onslaught, succumbed to the pressure.
Instead, Kemba Walker responded with a momentum-changing 3-pointer and later, Jayson Tatum anticipated Cauley-Stein’s tip off a jump ball and raced to the basket for the go-ahead dunk. The Celtics wouldn’t trail again in their 105-100 win, extending the winning streak to 10.
It wasn’t Boston’s best effort, not even close. The Warriors played harder throughout the game, feeding into the rather energized crowd at Chase Center. Yet, the Celtics persevered, played their best when they needed it, relied on the steadiness and relentlessness of Walker, who made one field goal in the first three quarters and five in the fourth.
This streak is reminiscent of two years ago, when the Celtics lost their first two games and Gordon Hayward to injury and then won their next 16. Why did the Celtics hold home-court advantage over the Cleveland Cavaliers that season is because of the equity built during that 16-game winning streak.
The Celtics are building the same equity now, ahead of the Atlantic Division-favored Philadelphia 76ers by 3½ games. That doesn’t mean much now, but these early-season games are significant. The Celtics need to beat the teams they’re supposed to, even on nights when they don’t get the officials calls or they miss countless layups.
“Relentless group,” Tatum said of the Celtics. “When things get tough, we never put our head down, always look to the next play, no matter if you turn it over, miss a shot, whatever, it’s always moving on to the next play.”
The Celtics had considerable trouble with that last season, unable to respond to adversity, lacking fortitude. It’s easy to say the difference is the departure of the mercurial Irving and the addition of the steady Walker, but it seems the entire roster has learned from last year’s experience.
They have faith and confidence in themselves. That Bowman alley-oop to Cauley-Stein was an indication that coming back would be difficult, that it would require a closer (Walker), some defensive stops without fouling and some astute thinking. Marcus Smart strongly suggested Cauley-Stein would tip the jump ball backwards, telling Tatum to anticipate the pass.
It was the key play of the game.
“We have to just keep getting better,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “We have a lot of things we have to clean up, especially when we’re not whole.”
But on nights like Friday, when they make a plethora of mistakes or when they miss 25 shots in the paint, they have to find a way to win. Walker headed up in the final period, hitting 5 of 8 shots down the stretch, finding the guile to overcome a slow start and help the Celtics prevail.
What’s interesting about Walker is that he is so dramatically different from Irving in personality and on-court success. Walker languished for eight years in Charlotte, losing more than he won. Irving isn’t the leader Walker is becoming but he did win a championship with the Cavaliers.
Of course, Irving won that titlewith LeBron James but he hit the biggest shot in franchise history. He played in two other NBA Finals and is accustomed to winning. Walker isn’t and he also isn’t taking this run for granted.
“I’m loving it; obviously we’ve won 10 games in a row which is something I’ve never done at this level,” he said. “It feels good to win. Guys are playing well. We’re playing together. Games like (Friday) just builds character, it builds togetherness. We didn’t get rattled, which was pretty special to be a part of. Hopefully we can continue to keep it going.”
It’s significant that Walker doesn’t take winning for granted or that his glee could be infectious. He is not the dominant voice in the Celtics’ locker room. There are many voices, many opinions on how to keep the streak and momentum going. But there is a commonality with this group, an appreciation for the journey and poise gained from less successful pasts.
“I’m lucky just to win, I’ve never won this many games in a row,” Walker said. “I’ve never had a start like this on this level. I’m just liking the way I’m feeling after the games. I feel good. That’s all I’m thinking about. I could care less about the streak, it’s just the feeling of winning. It feels good.”