ORLANDO — In his first game since being named an All-Star starter, Kemba Walker poured in 37 points to lead the undermanned Celtics to a 109-98 win Friday night over the Magic, their third in a row.
Gordon Hayward added 22 points, 14 rebounds, and 5 assists for Boston, which overcame a 16-point second-quarter deficit and some significant absences. Jayson Tatum (groin), Jaylen Brown (ankle), and Enes Kanter (hip) all sat out.
Observations from the game:
■ There was no slow start in this one, as the Celtics scored on their first six trips down the court. The ball movement was excellent as they burst to a 14-7 lead.
■ With 8:46 left, Daniel Theis (16 points, 6 rebounds) picked up his second foul when he knocked the ball out of bounds. The official closest to the play just said it was Magic ball, but a far official called the foul, much to the dismay of Celtics coach Brad Stevens and Walker, who protested for a bit. Stevens usually doesn’t react to a player to picking up two quick fouls, but in this case, with the absences of Kanter and Robert Williams, he had little choice but to call upon seldom-used big man Vincent Poirier.
■ The Magic didn’t attack Poirier as much as one might expect. On one possession, he even did well to force hulking center Nikola Vucevic well out of the post on a possession that ultimately crumbled. But Poirier did not really add anything, either.
■ Marcus Smart usually has one jaw-dropping defensive play per game, if not more. In this case, it came in the first quarter, when Evan Fournier appeared to get a step on him and made a move to the basket. Smart held his ground, though, and reached in with both arms and just ripped the ball away. Fournier could just shake his head.
■ For Walker, this probably felt a bit like some of his Charlotte days. He looked around and saw limited talent surrounding him, so he realized he would have to take on much of the scoring burden. Walker went at a different speed in the second quarter, blitzing to his spots and finding room even when it looked like there was none there. He had 19 points in the period and 27 in the first half.
■ Magic coach Steve Clifford, who coached Walker in Charlotte, has seen this plenty of times before, of course. After one Walker 3 in the second quarter, he called a timeout and his team came out in a zone defense. Walker then hit another 3, and the zone did not last.
■ The Celtics obviously preferred to have Theis on the floor in place of Poirier, but one of his second-quarter defensive possessions drew Stevens’s ire. With Theis’s man, Mo Bamba, late getting into the offense, Theis sort of just lingered in the paint and offered little resistance as Michael Carter-Williams swirled to the basket and scored. Stevens immediately called on Poirier to go back in.
■ The Magic led by as many as 16 points in the second quarter, but the Celtics clawed back into the game by ratcheting up their defensive intensity, and it was quite noticeable. Boston had four steals and forced six turnovers in the second.
■ Orlando, unsurprisingly, started blitzing Walker with multiple defenders more often in the second half, forcing someone else to make shots. On one play, Walker did well to escape a double-team and find a wide-open Grant Williams in the right corner. Williams then drained his second corner 3 of the game.
■ Walker went to the bench with 6:04 left in the second quarter and the Celtics trailing, 69-64. Based on the first half, Stevens was probably hoping to steal a few quick minutes of rest for his star. But Boston’s bench-heavy unit, along with Hayward, keyed a big 18-4 run that was sparked by defense and included a pair of high-flying Javonte Green dunks. That allowed Walker to stay on the bench for the rest of the period.
■ Walker came back in the fourth quarter rested and ready and scored 8 points over the first 3:20.
■ The Magic made one late run. They pulled within 103-98 on a Terrence Ross 3-pointer with 2:28 left, and Fournier, who was scorching, had a 3-pointer to make it a 2-point game. But it rimmed out and Orlando was never close again.
■ The Celtics always have plenty of fans in Orlando, but they actually had more than the Magic on Friday. Maybe it’s because it’s a weekend game, or maybe there are Patriots fans here for the Pro Bowl, or maybe it’s because, well, it’s winter.
■ The Celtics have made 44 of 101 3-pointers over their last three games.