The Boston Celtics carved out a little breathing room on Friday, snapping a three-game losing streak with a 118-112 victory over the Indiana Pacers.
Five takeaways from a sigh of relief for Boston.
Kemba Walker changed the tone in the first quarter.
The Celtics scuffled early and appeared to be on their way to yet another catastrophic loss as the Pacers almost instantly surged to a double-digit lead.
Then, with the Celtics trailing 18-4, Kemba Walker took over. Walker poured in 10 points and dished out two assists in the first quarter alone en route to a big night (32 points on 10-for-19 shooting, six assists, three rebounds). Boston’s 14-point deficit evaporated, and the Celtics reclaimed a 32-31 lead after one.
Walker’s performance was a little reminiscent of the way the Celtics used to utilize Isaiah Thomas — pick-and-roll offense with Walker dribbling around screens and circling into the paint out of dribble-hand off sets. His offense was an enormous lift.
The Celtics need to play Robert Williams whatever minutes they can.
Walker was Boston’s best player on Friday, but Williams may have been second — 14 points, 11 rebounds, four assists, and three blocks. Offensively, Williams put pressure on the defense around the rim and made a few high-level passes. Defensively, he gobbled up rebounds and made drivers think twice.
Stevens has said the Celtics have limited Williams’ minutes hoping to ramp him up as the season goes on. Williams’ hip is a concern, and the Celtics are being justifiably careful with his health — the last thing they want is a lingering mild injury to turn into something more serious.
Still, the Celtics should take whatever minutes they can get from Williams. He has played well and continues to show high-level potential at the center position, even if the Celtics still entrust sturdy veteran Daniel Theis with the closing minutes.
Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown finally got some support.
Tatum and Brown were a combined 9-for-30 from the floor with 24 points. Tatum in particular struggled, posting just nine points on frostbitten 4-for-18 shooting.
And yet, the Celtics still won shooting 51.2 percent from the field and 40.9 percent from the 3-point line. Remove Brown and Tatum’s lines from the box score, and Boston shot 63.4 percent as a team.
That’s the power of depth. Boston’s season was teetering on the brink of outright collapse (and frankly, it may have already begun its descent), but if Friday’s game sparks anything going into the break, it might not be a stretch to say Kemba Walker’s 32-point night salvaged the Celtics’ season.
Response to 4th quarter meltdown
The Celtics took a double-digit lead with nine minutes remaining. Almost instantly, the Pacers chipped it away with a 9-0 run spanning just 1:02 of game time.
The Celtics’ response, however, was encouraging. Once again, Walker spurred it — he buried a floater, then a long jumper to push Boston’s advantage back to six. The Pacers trimmed it back to three late, and Aaron Holiday’s wide-open triple with just under a minute remaining looked like a lock to tie the game.
Instead, it rattled off the rim, and Daniel Theis hit a corner 3-pointer on the other end that put the Celtics in control. Free throws down the stretch iced the contest, despite a bizarre 3-pointer by Domantas Sabonis that bounced high off the top of the backboard and fell through.
The Celtics’ fourth-quarter issues aren’t solved after one win, of course — they still fouled early and often, and they still had chances to pull away that they gave back.
But Friday’s performance — most notably because it was spurred on 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 gotten an extended look recently, played just seven minutes, while Javonte Green started the fourth quarter and was removed shortly afterward.
Stevens’ rotation to help his team dig out a win was mostly veterans plus Payton Pritchard, who topped 30 minutes for the second time this season.
The Celtics will take plenty of looks at Williams, Ojeleye, and Nesmith going forward, of course, but Stevens trimmed the minutes for younger players, which felt noteworthy.
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