The Boston Celtics opened up some breathing room on Friday, snapping a three-game losing streak with a 118-112 victory over the Indiana Pacers.
Five conclusions of a sigh of relief for Boston.
Kemba Walker changed the tone in the first quarter.
The Celtics fought early and appeared to be on their way to another catastrophic loss as the Pacers almost instantly reached a double-digit lead.
Then, with the Celtics trailing 18-4, Kemba Walker took over. Walker had 10 points and two assists in the first quarter alone en route to a great night (32 points on 10 of 19 shooting, six assists, three rebounds). Boston’s 14-point deficit evaporated and the Celtics regained a 32-31 lead after one.
Walker’s performance was a bit reminiscent of the way the Celtics used to use Isaiah Thomas: pick-and-roll offense with Walker dribbling around screens and spinning into the paint outside of the offside sets. His offense was a huge boost.
The Celtics need to play Robert Williams every minute they can.
Walker was Boston’s best player on Friday, but Williams could have been second: 14 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and three blocks. Offensively, Williams pushed the defense around the rim and made some high-level passes. Defensively, he gobbled up rebounds and made drivers think twice.
Stevens has said the Celtics have limited Williams’ minutes in hopes of improving him as the season progresses. Williams’ hip is a concern, and the Celtics are being justifiably careful about his health; the last thing they want is for a persistent minor injury to turn into something more serious.
Still, the Celtics should take every minute they can get from Williams. He has played well and continues to show high-level potential at center, even if the Celtics still trust veteran Daniel Theis in the final minutes.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown finally got some support.
Tatum and Brown were a combined 9 of 30 from the court with 24 points. Tatum in particular struggled, scoring just nine points on 4-of-18 freeze shots.
And yet the Celtics won by shooting 51.2 percent from the field and 40.9 percent from 3-point range. Eliminate the Brown and Tatum lines from the scoreboard, and Boston shot 63.4 percent as a team.
That is the power of depth. Boston’s season was on the brink of total collapse (and frankly, it may have already started its decline), but if Friday’s game provokes something before the break, it might not be a stretch to say that Kemba’s 32-point night Walker saved the season from the Celtics.
Response to the collapse of the fourth quarter
The Celtics took a double-digit lead with nine minutes to go. Almost instantly, the Pacers did it with a 9-0 streak that spanned just 1:02 of playing time.
The Celtics’ response, however, was encouraging. Once again, Walker spurred him on: he buried a float, then a long jump to push Boston’s lead to six. The Pacers cut it to three later, and Aaron Holiday’s wide 3-pointer with just under a minute to go looked like a game-tying block.
Instead, he came off the rim and Daniel Theis hit a corner 3-pointer at the other end that put the Celtics in control. Free throws down the stretch froze the competition, despite a rare 3-pointer from Domantas Sabonis that bounced off the top of the board and fell.
The Celtics’ fourth-quarter problems aren’t resolved after a win, of course; they still fouled early and often, and still had opportunities to walk away from what they returned.
But Friday’s performance, especially since it was powered by Walker, was certainly a step forward.
The Celtics’ rotations were intriguing.
Interestingly, Grant Williams and Semi Ojeleye did not play on Friday. Aaron Nesmith, who has received an extended look recently, played just seven minutes, while Javonte Green started the fourth quarter and was eliminated shortly after.
Stevens’ rotation to help his team seek a victory was primarily veterans plus Payton Pritchard, who exceeded 30 minutes for the second time this season.
The Celtics will be looking at Williams, Ojeleye and Nesmith a lot in the future, of course, but Stevens cut the minutes for the younger players, which felt noteworthy.
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