DALLAS — The baskets were being scored so easily. Seven-foot-three center Kristaps Porzingis was simply reaching over 6-foot-7 Jaylen Brown and shooting open jumpers. Seth Curry looked eerily similar to his two-time MVP brother, Steph, in a second-quarter stretch.
Trailing Dallas by 8 points midway through the third quarter, the Celtics intensified their defense, defending without fouling, and turning the Mavericks into indecisive shooters. Suddenly, Porzingis was being challenged at the rim, Curry was passing out of traps, and point guard Jalen Brunson was facing multiple bodies.
The result was an improved defensive performance, as the Mavericks grinded to score in the second half and the Celtics countered with critical buckets from Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker and Grant Williams.
Yes, Williams, the rookie who missed 27 of his first 28 3-point attempts, drained his 29th attempt, a 3-ball that gave the Celtics the lead in a rewarding, 109-103, win at American Airlines Center on Wednesday night.
After the Mavericks tied the game at 78 a minute into the fourth quarter, the Celtics countered with a 22-10 run, with Walker scoring 9 of those points.
Walker finished with 32 points, including five 3-pointers while Jaylen Brown added 26 and Tatum finished with 24. Williams scored 7 points but played critical minutes with Robert Williams (hip) and Vincent Poirier (finger) out with injuries.
It was an interesting statistical night for Walker, who scored 16 points in the opening quarter, 3 over the next two quarters, and 13 in the pivotal fourth.
“Whenever I had the opportunity to get shots off, I took them,” Walker said. “But they were blitzing me. I just wanted to make the right play. I wasn’t going to force it at all, until later when they couldn’t blitz me when Jaylen and JT, they were getting off. It opened things up for me.”
Statistically, the Celtics were sharp, defensively. The Mavericks scored 48 points in the second half, but 9 of those occurred in the last 1:26 when Boston was scrambling to hold on. Only Kristaps Porzingis scored in double digits after halftime and it required nine shots to score 10 points.
Also, the duo of Brunson and Tim Hardaway Jr., who combined for 16 points in the opening half, managed 9 on 2-for-13 shooting in the second half. Yet, Celtics coach Brad Stevens wasn’t so buoyed by his team’s defense. What’s more, he called out his defenders.
“I thought we were awful, defensively,” Stevens said. “They missed a lot of open shots. We played it well enough to win, but not good enough as we need to be a really good team. We had moments late where we strung together some stops, but we have to be much more committed to being better on that end of the floor.”
Without Gordon Hayward, who was a post-shootaround scratch with a foot injury, the Celtics used a 40-20 run for a 100-88 lead and then spent the final three minutes trying to make things suspenseful with a rash of mistakes.
The Celtics were able to play defense in the second half without fouling, preventing those easy points Dallas amassed in the first two periods. The Celtics were frustrated at halftime. They were complaining about the officiating, trying to stay close with flurries of their own.
Brown was able to score eight of the Celtics’ final 10 points of the half to slice the deficit to 55-50. After tying the game early in the third, the Celtics yielded a 13-5 run before making their stirring rally.
For the Celtics, it was an impressive win after five days off and learning of four players — Hayward, Williams, Poirier and Marcus Smart (eye) — who would be out with injuries. Instead of gaining health during their longest break of the season, the Celtics were beset with potential depth issues.
But Stevens dug deep into his bench, playing 11 of his 12 active players (besides rookie center Tacko Fall) who scrapped their way to a gritty road win.
“That was a big win,” Walker said. “We came in here, never quit, and it really did help us.”
The Celtics got a combined 45 points from Brown, Tatum and Walker in the second half as their stars eclipsed the Mavericks’ standout players. Dallas was playing its second full game without injured superstar Luka Doncic, an legitimate MVP candidate in his second season.
That didn’t stop the Mavericks from snapping Milwaukee’s 18-game winning streak Monday in Wisconsin, so the Celtics were wary of Dallas’ ability to score in bunches. They lived up to their billing in the opening half, but that momentum subsided as the game progressed.
“Well, not a great first quarter, pretty good second quarter, and the second half was a struggle,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle said. “A lot of it had to do with how they were playing. We’ve just got to do better at both ends. Hey, it was a tough night; the opening shots we did have, we were struggling to get them in. It was tough stopping them.”