Against Isaiah Thomas, it's Kemba Walker's time to be the Celtics' 4th-quarter hero

Against Isaiah Thomas, it's Kemba Walker's time to be the Celtics' 4th-quarter hero

BOSTON — Kemba Walker remembers watching the Isaiah Thomas-era Celtics from afar. He marveled at the way Thomas' big fourth quarters used to make the Garden roar. He watched Boston's playoff surge in the 2017 playoffs and wondered what it felt like to play on that sort of stage.

How crazy, then, was it to watch Walker tuck behind an Enes Kanter screen and splash a crunch-time 3-pointer over Thomas to seal Boston’s 140-133 triumph over the visiting Washington Wizards on Wednesday night.

The Celtics have now won nine in a row. That’s two games longer than any win streak Walker ever experienced in Charlotte. Boston owns the NBA’s best record at 9-1 as it braces for a five-game trip that ought to tell us a lot more about where exactly this team sits in among the league’s elite.

The Celtics have had to patch together some ugly wins early this season and the only constant has been Walker figuring out a way to dump in a bunch of points, particularly in key spots.

Walker is 17th in the NBA in scoring while averaging 25 points per game but he’s fifth in second-half scoring, putting up 16.4 points per game, all while shooting 50 percent from the field and 55.9 percent beyond the 3-point arc after the intermission. He’s sixth in fourth-quarter scoring at 8.1 points per game but rises to No. 1 in the league when you judge based on per-100 possession production (57.9 points per 100 possessions).

No need to make comparisons here. Kardiac Kemba isn’t producing at King in the Fourth level production, but he’s damn good. The Celtics have had an embarrassment of riches in terms of fourth-quarter producers in recent seasons from Thomas to Kyrie Irving to Walker.

It’s why Marcus Smart laughs and declares himself spoiled when asked about all the clutch players he’s had alongside him in Boston’s backcourt.

"I’ve been lucky. I’ve been here for all three of them,” said Smart. "Those guys, it’s a different mindset when the fourth quarter hits.

"It’s kinda like when you know you’ve got to do something. Your mom’s coming home and you ain’t done the dishes so you had to run. That’s how it is in the fourth quarter. Something just clicks like, ‘Oh, we gotta go, it’s time to turn it on.’"

Walker scored 11 third-quarter points Wednesday then went cold for a stretch in the fourth. The late 3-pointer was his only make of the frame and yet the Celtics needed it to bury these pesky but defense-averse Wizards.

What is it about key moments that allows Walker to shine brightest?

“Just playing the game. Just the way the game is going sometimes, Brad is just calling my number,” said Walker. "Whenever he’s calling the plays for me, whatever’s my play, I’m just looking to be aggressive, make the right play. But my teammates do such a great job kind of stretching, getting me open, holding the screens. They know I like to pull up off the screens so they do a great job of just getting me open.”

Walker finished with a team-high 25 points on 8-of-17 shooting but was just one of seven players in double figures for scoring. He spent much of his postgame press conference gushing about the way others stepped up, including Boston’s injury-thinned bench.

A west coast trip awaits. There’s going to be bumps in the road, at least more than Boston has encountered thus far. But Walker is ready for it.

"We’re going to learn a lot, man,” said Walker. "When you go on road trips is when adversity starts to hit, fatigue starts to set in, guys want to get back home. Those trips are long. But we’re going to learn a lot about each other.

“Hopefully when adversity does hit, we’re going to see how we handle it. That’s what’s the most important thing. For me, I just want to keep this team together as much as possible. This is a huge stretch for us, really important, and it’s gonna show what we’re made of.”

Walker knows there’s going to be games where, like Thomas, he’s going to have to step up and lead this team. He’s going to have to shoulder the load.

He’s been watching from afar and he’s ready for those moments, and so much more.

Don’t miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Warriors, which tips off Friday at 9:30 p.m. ET with Celtics Pregame Live, and then Mike & Scal have the call of the game at 10:30 p.m. You can also stream the game through the MyTeams App.

In Boston, there's one thing everyone can agree on

In Boston, there's one thing everyone can agree on

You’ve probably heard that America is divided like never before. Neighbors are fighting, parents and kids aren’t talking to each other, and the Internet, which was supposed to bring us all together, has only made the division worse. 

Well, there’s good news. There is one thing that the vast majority of American’s can agree on … screw the Lakers!

That’s right, according to science, the Lakers are the most hated team in the country.

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The hatred (and to be clear, this is not real hate, it’s sports hate) is understandable in Boston. There’s history between the two most storied franchises in the NBA. The Celtics and Lakers have met 12 times in the NBA Finals, and in case you were wondering, the C's hold a 9-3 edge in those championship series.

Twelve matchups for the ultimate prize has understandably bred hatred between the two fan bases, but why does everyone else hate L.A.? It’s hard to say for sure, but it might have something to do with the Lakers being a free agent destination despite being one of the worst run franchises in the entire league over the last 10 years. It might be their entitled fans who think every good player will ultimately sign with them. It could just be that Dwight Howard is on the team.

Whatever the reason, despite our divided nation, America can agree that the Lakers are the worst.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Lakers, which begins Monday at 6 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live. You can also stream on the MyTeams App.

Where Jayson Tatum stands in quest to become an NBA 'superstar'

Where Jayson Tatum stands in quest to become an NBA 'superstar'

BOSTON — Jayson Tatum had a pretty good idea his jersey was popular even before the NBA confirmed it last week. A friend was in New Zealand recently and sent Tatum videos that showed a couple Kiwis walking around in Tatum’s No. 0 jersey.

When the Celtics are on the road, Tatum admits he often scans the crowd to see if he can find any of his shirts. Even as his NBA star rises, Tatum went so far as to call it his, “favorite thing to do,” and admits it’s an incredibly rewarding feeling to see his jersey in rival arenas.

Last week, the NBA unveiled its top-selling merchandise for the first half of the 2019-20 season. Tatum landed at No. 4, trailing only LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Stephen Curry. That’s a trio with six NBA titles, seven MVP awards, and 24 All-Star appearances.

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But it’s the players that Tatum appeared ahead of that really floored him. James Harden? Kawhi Leonard?! Kevin Durant!?!?

"All the guys on that list, they’re 'superstars,' or looked at as stars,” said Tatum. "It’s great company to be in. I guess the fans like me.”

Tatum marveled that, of the roughly 500 players now on NBA rosters, fans are willing to plunk their money down for his jersey. His shirt is a big reason the Celtics ranked No. 2 in team sales, trailing only the Los Angeles Lakers, who visit TD Garden on Monday night.

We found it interesting that Tatum didn’t lump himself in the “star” category alongside the other 14 individual players that grace the list. Does he see himself as a "superstar?"

"That’s what I’m working towards,” said Tatum. “Obviously, those guys have accomplished a lot in the league and they deserve to be called superstars. I still haven't even made the All-Star game yet. Just taking it step by step, but it is something that I’m actively trying to get towards.”

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There is almost no denying that Tatum will soon check all the necessary boxes to assume the title of star. An important tick could come soon when All-Star reserves are announced. Even as Boston navigates a bit of a midseason swoon, Tatum has been one of the most impactful players on the roster and seems likely to join Kemba Walker (14th on that jersey sales list) in Chicago next month.

Still over a month shy of his 22nd birthday, Tatum has crammed an awful lot into his young NBA career. After an All-Rookie season, he nearly willed the shorthanded Celtics to the NBA Finals. His Game 7 dunk on James will be a career highlight no matter what he accomplishes. Tatum produced his first 40-point night of his career last week but is already downplaying the accomplishment.

"When I have big games, I try not to get too excited because, I say it all the time, the guys I looked up to, they do it often,” said Tatum. "I’m trying to get to that point where, when I do have a big night, it’s kinda like another night.”

Yes, that consistency is what separates borderline stars from the sure things. Tatum knows that a 40-point night against the New Orleans Pelicans doesn’t mean as much if he labors through 4-of-13 shooting against the Eastern Conference rival Philadelphia 76ers a couple days before it.

"I feel like everybody goes through it. Especially the guys that are the best and are kinda looked at that way when they first came into the league,” said Tatum, whom Boston nabbed at No. 3 in the 2017 NBA Draft after trading down from the top overall pick. "They expect more out of me and I expect a lot out of myself.”

Celtics coach Brad Stevens has often marveled at what both Tatum and fellow partner in (juvenile) crime Jaylen Brown have accomplished early in their NBA careers. Whenever the duo faces criticism for their inconsistencies, Stevens suggests reporters compare their body of work to other stars at the same age.

Stevens doesn’t put a lot of thought into jersey sales — his teenage son, Brady, has moved out of the jersey phase — but the coach understands why others would lean towards Tatum.

“It makes sense in this day and age with all of the movement: Buy a really good young player’s jersey,” said a smiling Stevens.

Yes, buying a Celtics jersey has been a dicey proposition in recent years. Even Tatum hasn’t been absolved from trade whispers (back when Lakers big man Anthony Davis was the object of Danny Ainge’s desire). Now it feels like Tatum is the key to whatever Boston accomplishes moving forward.

This summer, Tatum will be eligible — and likely receive — a maximum-salary extension of his rookie deal. It will lock Tatum and Brown in as the foundation of the team moving forward. But even while more established stars like Walker and Gordon Hayward are on the roster, what this team accomplishes likely hinges on what Tatum becomes.

In order to compete for a title, a team has to have an MVP-caliber player as its centerpiece. The current Celtics have a bunch of 1A-type players but their championship hopes strengthen if Tatum eventually ascends to the clear-cut best player on the team.

There’s strides to be made on the court. His ball-handling needs to improve so he can more consistently attack the basket, he needs to be better at finishing, his shooting percentages down this season. But the talent is obvious and it seems like only a matter of time before he puts it all together. The potential to be Boston’s No. 1 is there if he’s willing to work for it.

Everything else is lining up for him. The All-Star label is coming, and so is the contract. This past summer, Tatum signed with Jordan Brand, becoming one of the young faces of the popular shoe brand. Tatum’s also well-regarded around the league, as evidenced by how Walker sought him out for advice before joining the Celtics.

All signs point to Tatum as a superstar. Now he’s just got to prove it on the court, especially in those matchups where the surefire stars are on the other side of the court.

Don't miss NBC Sports Boston's coverage of Celtics-Lakers, which begins Monday at 6 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live. You can also stream on the MyTeams App.