When Kemba Walker checked out of Monday’s game against the Cavaliers with just under three minutes left in the third quarter, it was fair to assume that he would not be seen again.
After all, Boston held a commanding 28-point lead against an overmatched Cleveland team that had spent much of the night appearing to have no interest in being at TD Garden. But Walker did not put his feet up. He has seen too much mayhem during his career to think it would be safe to do that.
And when Cleveland quickly whittled the deficit to 12 and began to turn a breezy night into a concern, Walker did not flinch when his number was called once more. The All-Star calmly drilled three 3-pointers over an 82-second span, putting the Celtics at ease once again before they finished off a 110-88 win.
In the locker room afterward, Celtics coach Brad Stevens condensed the game to that small slice and used it a teaching moment. He told his players that if they want to be special, they should try to be like Kemba.
“Kemba sits over there, thinks his night is done, gets put back in the game, drills three 3s, and ends it,” Stevens said. “I mean, special is not for everybody, but that’s just different. That’s just always ready, always wanting to be called upon, always loving to play. He’s not untying his shoes, he’s staying ready because he knows this game can change in a heartbeat.”
About a half-hour later, Walker was asked about this approach that his coach had clearly found so powerful. He mostly shrugged, saying that it is not really out of the ordinary for him.
“At the end of the day you have to stay engaged throughout the whole game,” Walker said. “You just never know.”
Walker finished with 22 points and seven assists, and the Celtics outscored the Cavaliers by 32 points during his 29 minutes on the floor. Stat lines like that have become common for the All-Star point guard as Boston rolled off wins in seven of its last eight games. But, on this night, he was happy to get some new reinforcements, too, as Gordon Hayward returned after being sidelined for a month with a broken left hand.
Hayward and Stevens insisted in recent weeks that since the hand injury had not limited his workouts all that much, they did not expect very much rust to collect during his absence. And although the competition was hardly championship-caliber, Hayward played Monday as if he had never left. He made 7 of 10 shots and tallied 14 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists in 26 minutes.
“I think it’s a lot easier this time to come back from something when you can run around and you don’t have to rest your legs, so it’s just my left hand,” Hayward said. “That made it a lot easier.”
The Celtics were still not quite at full strength, however, as Marcus Smart missed the game with an eye infection and Robert Willliams sat out because of a sore hip. This team is eager to once again get a true idea of what it looks like when it is whole, but it has consistently shown how successful it can be with missing pieces, too.
The Celtics are now 10-0 at home and they are on a 63-win pace. No one is really expecting them to sustain that, but the fact that they have been this steady for this long has encouraged everyone in the locker room.
“Guys are playing good and we’re winning,” said Jayson Tatum (19 points, 11 rebounds), “so no reason not to be happy.”
The Celtics made 57.7 percent of their shots and 55.6 percent of their 3-pointers Monday, and perhaps the most memorable of them all came from a player whose long-range struggles had somehow been both endearing and troublesome.
Rookie Grant Williams entered the night 0 for 25 from beyond the arc, but with 4:46 left in the third quarter he calmly stepped behind the line and tossed one through the hoop. His teammates on the bench erupted as if the shot was a game-winner rather than one that had given their team a 27-point lead. Brad Wanamaker even collapsed to the ground in mock disbelief.
“It was a good moment,” Williams said of the shot. “A relieving moment, I’ll say that.”
Jaylen Brown said after the game that the Celtics had given Williams the nickname “Ben Simmons” for the Philadelphia point guard who was 0 for 17 on 3-pointers in his career before making a pair this season.
The biggest difference is that Simmons is an All-Star, and his team pounded Boston on opening night. The 76ers will now be lurking on the tail end of a difficult back-to-back for the Celtics, which starts Wednesday at Indiana.
“A great challenge coming up,” Stevens said. “Two really good teams. Two really hard-playing teams with a couple more big frontcourts, so we’re looking forward to it.”