BOSTON — The Boston Celtics were the embodiment of “winning ugly” following Monday’s win over the Dallas Mavericks.
At one end of the team’s locker room, Kemba Walker and his still-sore neck — the one that forced him out of the final minutes of regulation after his scoring outburst helped Boston separate for a 116-106 triumph — struggled to locate his cell phone, and a handful of staffers were summonsed for a mini search party. A couple stalls down, a trainer dabbed at a small gash on Jaylen Brown’s forehead. Nearby, Jayson Tatum lounged in his chair and could only laugh while licking his emotional wounds from a historically bad 1-for-18 shooting night.
At the front of the room, in front of a pack of cameras and microphones, Marcus Smart publicly declared that he’d like to stop being kicked in the groin during NBA games.
Yup, it wasn’t pretty -- and often painful. But on the same night that Gordon Hayward went under the knife to repair the fractured hand that will sideline him until Christmas, the Celtics got a little taste of how things are probably going to be the next 19 games.
Fortunately for Boston, all ended well. A locker room attendant found Walker’s cell phone hiding under a towel, Brown downplayed the head wound, Tatum trekked to the Auerbach Center for some late-night shooting, and Smart shrugged off his bruises while noting, “It's nothing new for me.”
Ultimately, it’s the Celtics kicking the rest of the league below the belt. Boston won its eighth straight game to move to an NBA-best 8-1 overall. These Celtics keep finding ways to win games even when they don’t play the crispest basketball.
Tatum became only the ninth player in NBA history to put up at least 18 shots in a regular season game and make only one (Mike Newlin’s 1-for-22 performance for Houston in 1973 remains the not-so gold standard for single-field goal nights). But even without Hayward and despite only getting five points in 35 minutes from Tatum, the Celtics found a way to stiff-arm the Mavericks when it mattered most.
They can thank Walker, who shrugged off a quiet first half (5 points on 2-of-6 shooting) before erupting for 24 second-half points on 7-of-11 shooting.
That included a pair of crunch-time 3-pointers as part of a 10-point fourth quarter in which Walker did all his damage over just 3:39 before colliding with Luka Doncic and suffering what Brad Stevens termed “whiplash.” Walker hit a trio of triples in a 70-second span as Boston pushed its lead to seven before the injury that left trainers working on his neck on the sideline.
Walker, who entered the night fifth in the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring, had struggled in crunch time (games within five points, final five minutes) this season. He was a mere 2-of-11 shooting overall (18.2 percent) in crunch-time scenarios but produced a familiar Kardiac Kemba outburst.
"I missed a lot early but my shot felt good all night,” said Walker. "I was just missing and then, in the fourth quarter, it’s just, naturally, the competitive nature just comes out and trying to do what I can to put the ball in the basket.”
Brown, coming off his 30-point outburst in San Antonio, put together another encouraging night by putting up 25 points and 11 rebounds. By the end of the night, Doncic, a player that looks a lot like a future MVP, said of Brown: "He deserves the contract he got. He's a great player and he's a two-way player. He can play really good defense and really good offense. He's a great pick up by the Celtics.”
Brown said that, with Hayward out, the Celtics aren’t looking for style points.
"That’s what it’s about: Find ways to win, regardless,” said Brown. "The older we get as we go through this process — we’re getting older, me, [Tatum], guys that have been here, Smart. We know how to win, so we’ve just got to continue to do that and I think today was a good example of that.”
Like Brown, many Celtics did a little extra on Monday night. Smart took on the challenge (yet again) of guarding a big in Kristaps Porzingis and helped limit the unicorn to four points on 1-of-11 shooting. Daniel Theis played through a right pinky dislocation to finish plus-27 in 22 minutes. The bench struggled to maintain leads but Robert Williams, Grant Williams, Javonte Green, and Brad Wanamaker all had good moments. Enes Kanter played his first game at the Garden after missing the last seven with a bruised knee.
The Celtics are 8-1. It’s an unsustainable pace, particularly without Hayward, and yet this team honestly feels like it hasn’t come close to playing its best basketball, and certainly not for anywhere near 48 minutes.
But it’s content to just keep winning ugly.
"We’re just playing, we’re not even worried about the record right now,” said Walker. "It’s a great record, don’t get it twisted. I’m loving it. We’re all loving it, that we’re able to win these games. We’re playing well. I honestly feel like we still have so much growth as a group and we know that as a group, which is really special to me.”
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