Kemba Walker, having reached his nightly minutes restriction, was standing at the back of Boston’s three-tier bench when Jaylen Brown took a feed from Jayson Tatum and buried a game-clinching 3-pointer in the final minute of Sundays’ win over the Portland Trail Blazers.
Walker, a towel slung around his neck, raised his right hand in the air and simply reveled in the moment, all while the rest of Boston’s bench spilled onto the floor in celebration during the timeout that followed.
"They’re special. They’re special,” Walker said after Boston escaped with a 128-124 triumph for their first bubble victory of the restart. Tatum finished with a team-high 34 points, a fresh haircut both restoring his scoring prowess and giving him newfound assist superpowers. All while Brown scored 16 of his 30 points in the final frame.
"In order for us to be a great team, those two guys are going to have to go at it every night, they’re going to have to balance off each other,” added Walker. "They’re gonna have to love each other. Because their talent level is unreal. And it just takes our team to different heights when they’re playing basketball at that kind of level.”
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Walker might have been a spectator for the frenetic final frame but he was spectacular for the second straight game and — we’ll stress it here again — nothing is more important for the Celtics than Walker looking more like the All-Star talent we saw at the start of the 2019-20 season. Given all the consternation about his knee, it’s still jarring just how crisp he’s looked in these games.
Walker finished with 14 points in 22 minutes, making five of six shots including both 3-pointers he attempted. Walker continues to look speedy and shifty, the only sign of an issue with his left knee being the minute restriction that Stevens refuses to budge from even as the Celtics endure a couple nailbiters to start these seeding games.
But what’s also encouraging for the Celtics’ playoff hopes is that, even when Walker isn’t on the court, Tatum and Brown can embrace the stage as they did. Walker’s health is of utmost importance once the postseason arrives, but the Celtics having three players that are eager and willing to take over down the stretch — and Gordon Hayward has been excellent in these two games, too — is quite the luxury that will force opponents to pick their playoff poison.
Like a shamrock, call this a three-leaved closer.
The Celtics have yearned in recent years to have multiple options they can lean on in crunch time, a variety of scorers who prevent opponents from clamping down on one focal point.
It’s no surprise based on what they’ve accomplished that Brown and Tatum can thrive in the moment. It’s simply the prospects of having all three healthy for a postseason run that makes Boston a legitimate threat.
Especially when they can pull out a quality win against a win-or-go-home opponent like the Blazers.
"We definitely missed Kemba out there, for sure,” said Brown. "Kemba is a leader and he gives us a balance to our team that we desperately need. We shouldn't have had to get into a close game. We feel like that's a part of our growth as well as a team.
"You got to be able to carry the team with the guys out on the court, between me, Jayson, Gordon and whoever else is out there. Just continue to take the next step as basketball players but also as thinkers of the game, start seeing the game, understanding the game and making the right plays.”
Tatum and Brown nearly willed an injury-filled Celtics roster to the Finals two years ago. Even with the East deeper with talent, Boston’s ceiling is higher based on their improvements of Brown and Tatum, plus the All-Star talent they should have beside them.
“We’re young guys, but we have a decent amount of playoff experience. We’ve been in some big games and some big moments,” said Tatum. "And two very extremely confident guys that want to be out there, want to make big plays.”
Walker wanted to be out there, too. But he’s not pushing his luck. He knows Stevens is not having any of it.
"Brad is not putting me back in,” said Walker. "Doesn’t matter the kind of emotions I’ve got. He’s not going over the restriction limit. It don’t matter. My best bet is to stay positive, cheer my teammates on to the best of my ability, and that’s what I try to do — stay engaged into the game.”
And it’s a lot easier to embrace the sideline when there’s players like Brown and Tatum keeping the team afloat.