LOS ANGELES — With 4 minutes, 34 seconds left in the Celtics’ 127-117 win against the Timberwolves on Friday night and a 13-point Boston lead whittled to just 3 points, Jaylen Brown went to the bench after collecting his sixth foul.
The Celtics were already without point guard Kemba Walker, who sat out because of knee soreness, and coach Brad Stevens needed to find a way to stop Minnesota’s undersized, perimeter-heavy attack that was spraying 3-pointers and charging to the basket using the space that was a result of this spread-out attack.
Romeo Langford had played just 184 minutes all season entering the night. And in his first 15 minutes Friday, he’d had no real impact on offense. But Boston has enough weapons at that end of the floor that scoring was not essential. Stevens needed a stopper, and the 20-year-old Langford has done enough to make Stevens trust him, even in the closing moments of a suddenly tense game.
“His defense is really good,” Stevens said. “I give a lot of credit to Romeo. I give a lot of credit to [assistant coach] Joe Mazzulla. They spend every pregame going through defensive technique work and everything the other team is going to do, every day. That just adds up.”
On Minnesota’s first possession with Langford back in the game, star point guard D’Angelo Russell immediately called for a screen so Langford would switch onto him. But Langford stayed low and kept Russell in front of him, and then did well to contest his 3-point try that was not close to going in.
Just over a minute later, Malik Beasley was the one who found Langford switched onto him. Once again, Langford used his length to dissuade a drive, and then got a hand in Beasley’s face as he launched a 3 that missed. Moments later, Daniel Theis scored to stretch Boston’s lead back to 10 points, and it was not in danger again.
The Timberwolves mustered just 6 points in the final 4:34, in part because of Langford’s solid defense as Minnesota looked to attack the rookie. And the numbers back up this new, if temporary, role as a stopper.
With Langford on the floor, the Celtics are allowing just 97.2 points per 100 possessions, the top defensive rating among current rotation players. For comparison’s sake, the Bucks’ 101.7 defensive rating as a team is the best in the NBA.
Langford has been stout in the fourth quarter, too, with an elite 97.8 defensive rating and a team-leading 16.2 net rating.
Some of those opportunities have come late in games that have been decided, when Stevens pulls his starters and goes deep into his bench. But more recently, Langford has been used in multiple crunch-time situations.
On Feb. 5 against the Magic, the rookie drew his first career start. Then with Boston leading, 101-96, with 5:17 left in the fourth quarter, Langford re-entered and was on the court for the rest of the game as Boston pulled away for a 116-100 win.
Two nights later against the Hawks, Langford entered with 3:27 left in the fourth quarter and Boston leading, 101-94. He did not go back to the bench again, and he even had two free throws to seal the 112-107 victory.
Langford understands that when Boston is at full strength, his opportunities this year could be more fleeting. But it’s also true that the Celtics have rarely had their full complement of players, and Langford is now comfortable knowing that a sizable role is never that far away.
“It’s good that [Stevens] already, like, trusts me,” Langford said. “So I’ve just got to go out there and deliver. That’s all it is.”
Langford said the pregame sessions with Mazzulla have given a major boost to his confidence. The two usually arrive several hours before each game, and some other staffers join them on the floor to mimic the schemes and approaches that the night’s opponent will bring.
“I like to see things and do it to get a feel for it,” he said. “I work on basically just everything. Everybody sort of runs the same stuff, but I work on it a lot so I feel like I’m more prepared for things when Brad does throw me in, because I’ve worked on it and kind of seen it. The only thing is it’s still a little different preparing because you can’t simulate the pace of the game and the team. But other than that I prepare for mostly everything.”
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Walker will miss Sunday’s game against the Lakers due to his sore left knee. He had been limited by knee soreness in recent weeks, and he had the knee drained after he complained of swelling following last Sunday’s All-Star game. He sat out Friday’s game against the Timberwolves, but said that he did not believe his knee would be a long-term issue.
Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at email@example.com.