It was well past midnight when Celtics point guard Kemba Walker finished his media interviews and then started swerving between reporters as he ran down a long hallway in the bowels of TD Garden. There was a plane to All-Star weekend in Chicago to catch, and Walker was running late.
When Walker signed with the Celtics last summer, it was assumed that he would be positioned to make his fourth consecutive All-Star team. It was less known whether this roster had another elite talent to join him.
But on this night—and in this game against the Clippers — Walker was certainly not flying alone. He said after Boston’s thrilling 141-133 double-overtime win that fellow All-Star Jayson Tatum had been the best player on the court. And that group included Clippers superstar Kawhi Leonard.
But after these 58 tense and taut minutes, it was hard to argue with Walker’s assessment. Tatum made 14 of 23 shots and had 39 points and 9 rebounds. On defense, he pestered Leonard with his length and helped hold him to 10-of-27 shooting.
Walker said it was the best Tatum performance that he has witnessed.
“He was incredible,” he said. “He made every right play. He made every big shot.”
Those sparkling plays did not just come from Tatum, though. These two teams traded big shots in big moments throughout a game that felt like it was meant more for late spring than the middle of winter.
Former Celtic Marcus Morris tied the score at 114 with 46.8 seconds left in regulation before Walker missed a potential game-winner at the buzzer.
With Boston trailing, 124-123, in overtime, Tatum completed a powerful step-through move for a layup.
Then after Leonard’s fadeaway was short, Tatum blitzed past him for a layup that made it 127-124 Boston with 24.8 seconds remaining.
It appeared Lou Williams had a chance for a 4-point play when he was fouled by Gordon Hayward on a 3-pointer with 23.6 seconds left. The official closest to Williams signaled that the basket was good before another stepped in and overruled it.
After the game, Clippers coach Doc Rivers voiced his frustration about the play.
“That’s a shot,” he said. “The officials are telling us that [Boston] had a foul to give, so they were trying to foul, and when you see the film, they clearly were not trying to foul. You can see Hayward bring his hands back as the guy was going up.”
As Rivers was continuing his rant in a Garden hallway, Hayward walked by.
“Gordon, you know you fouled him,” Rivers said.
“It was close,” Hayward said
Rivers then joked that when an NBA player says a play was close, the truth is obvious. Then he wished Hayward well and moved on.
Despite that controversial moment in the first overtime, though, Clippers guard Landry Shamet drilled a 3-pointer to tie the game and Tatum missed a potential game-winner from the top of the key, forcing the second extra session.
With Boston leading, 134-132, Hayward drained a 3 from the top of the key to stretch Boston’s lead to 5. And Grant Williams, who already had a key block early in the overtime, came up with a steal.
Tatum was called for an offensive foul, but as Lou Williams drove for a layup, Hayward blocked it off of Williams’s head. Los Angeles did not threaten again.
“I thought Gordon was good on Lou at the end,” Stevens said. “He gives a lot of people fits.”
Williams gave the Celtics fits for much of this night, finishing with 35 points, 8 rebounds and 6 assists. But it was not quite enough.
Marcus Smart had 31 points for the Celtics, including his own 10-0 first-quarter run that offered a strong response after Los Angeles scored the first 7 points of the game. During the first timeout, the Celtics showed a video on the scoreboard announcing that they will retire Kevin Garnett’s No. 5 next season. Smart, one of the few players with intensity that sits near Garnett’s level, said he saw the video.
“If that didn’t get you going, I don’t know what to tell you,” he said. “Just watching that video gives you the extra juice to compete.”
The Clippers were without starting guard Patrick Beverley, and star forward Paul George missed the second half after tweaking his hamstring in the first. Jaylen Brown sat out for Boston because of a calf contusion.
These absences, combined with the game that seemed like it might go well into Friday morning, left the players on the court looking understandably exhausted. Walker, who had been limited to about 29 minutes per game recently as he recovers from lingering knee pain, played 45. Hayward and Tatum both topped 47.
But the Celtics summoned the energy that they needed when it was time.
“This team’s got good fight, it’s got good toughness, and that’s been really fun,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said.
Boston now enters the All-Star break at 38-16, comfortably among the top three in the Eastern Conference and on pace for 57.7 wins. The Celtics have reached this point despite a string of nagging but not crushing injuries.
Now most of the team will recharge before its four-game Western Conference road trip, and Walker and Tatum will go to Chicago and show the rest of the world some of what Boston fans have been witnessing for the past five months.