DENVER — For much of the first half on the Celtics’ 96-92 loss to the Nuggets Friday night, the Celtics were primarily concerned with finding a way to dig themselves out of yet another deep and perplexing early deficit. And then that didn’t matter anymore.
With just more than three minutes left in the second quarter, Kemba Walker leaned down as he went after a loose ball and ran headfirst into the midsection of his muscular 240-pound teammate, Semi Ojeleye.
Walker was eventually transported to a local hospital, and he was evaluated and released late Friday night, a somewhat stunning result following a harrowing scene.
After the collision, Walker collapsed to the ground, and within moments a timeout had been called, medical personnel were on the court, and a team security member was holding a fist into the air to signal for a stretcher.
The Celtics players and coaches huddled around Walker. Some of them talked to him to make sure he knew they were there, and others looked on in stunned silence. Jaylen Brown had not seen the play unfold, but he said the concerned look in the eyes of Ojeleye — the man who had absorbed the impact — made everyone uneasy.
Coach Brad Stevens tried to communicate with Walker, but realized he was in no position to do that. Ojeleye led a prayer, just as he did after Gordon Hayward shattered his ankle just over two years ago.
Walker received a standing ovation as he was carried off the court, and the Celtics were dazed. When the replay of the collision was shown on the stadium’s video board a few moments later, there was an audible and collective gasp in the arena.
At halftime, Stevens made his way to the ambulance before it left for a local hospital. He was relieved to find that early scans had yielded positive news about Walker’s condition, and that he was showing concussion-like symptoms rather than dealing with a major neck injury.
Stevens said Walker was able to communicate then and he told him he would be fine, and that the team should go win the game.
“He had his wherewithal and was in decent spirits,” Stevens said, “which was good, obviously.”
Stevens relayed the news to his players, who trailed by 13 points at halftime and were understandably dazed. And even though the Nuggets pounced again in the third quarter, stretching their lead to 19 points with less than two minutes left, the Celtics did not wilt, using several furious rallies to twice pull within one in the fourth.
In the end, their surge stalled and the night ended with their third loss in four games. But the encouraging news about Walker combined with the fight they showed without him kept the postgame mood from being sour.
“It’s tough, but we tried to gather it up for him and go out there and give it everything we had for him,” Marcus Smart said. “It’s tough to see anybody go through that, especially in that circumstances that it is. But I said we had to move on and we had to play with what we had.”
If Walker is sidelined for a lengthy period, Stevens likely will turn to either Smart or Brad Wanamaker as his starting point guard. The Celtics received some good news this week, when Hayward, who is still recovering from surgery to repair a broken hand, started shooting again. He is expected to return in a few weeks.
But there will certainly be a gaping hole until Walker returns. Boston now heads home after this grueling five-game, nine-day trip, and it will not play again until facing the Kings on Monday and the Nets on Wednesday.
It would be stunning if Walker is able to return for either of those games, and on Friday night the Nets announced that former Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving will not travel to Boston for Wednesday’s matchup, as he continues to nurse a shoulder injury.
Although the Celtics 10-game winning streak seems like a distant memory now, Stevens left Denver on Friday quite encouraged by how his team had battled when it had just about every reason to fold and try again some other day.
“I told [the new players] that the guys that are holdovers here, those dudes are warriors,” Stevens said. “I mean, to come back in that game, on the last day of the trip, after seeing Kemba go down, in Denver, against that team, and give us a chance to win? They’re warriors.”
The Nuggets led by 19 points with less than two minutes left in the third quarter before Wanamaker gave Boston a closing surge in the final 1:20, hitting a layup and a floater before finding Javonte Green for a 3-pointer that helped pull the Celtics within 70-57 at the start of the fourth.
And the run did not stop there, as Denver thudded one jump shot off the rim after another, and the Celtics used their speed and defense to surge upcourt on fast breaks and erase what was once a massive deficit.
Boston started the fourth quarter with a 16-5 run and pulled within 77-76 on a layup by Brown with 4:34 left. The Nuggets briefly regrouped before the Celtics pounced again, this time with a Brown 3-pointer that made it 84-83 with 2:19 left.
But the Celtics were never quite able to pull in front. A long 2-pointer by Jamal Murray with 11.4 seconds remaining made it 93-88, and despite some creative and fast layups by the Celtics in the final moments, Boston came up just short.
“The makeup we have in this locker room, we all always have a chance to win,” Brown said, “because we have some true fighters and warriors on this team.”