BOSTON — When his night was complete, the Celtics having built a comfortable 30-point cushion over the visiting Los Angeles Lakers with five minutes to play in Monday’s tilt at TD Garden, Kemba Walker slowly made his way down the Boston sideline dapping every person along the way.
He started at Brad Stevens, visited with each assistant coach, then all of his teammates, and kept right on going when he reached the training staff. At one point it felt like he might head straight into the crowd and start shaking hands.
For the duration of the impromptu receiving line, Walker wore his trademark smile. It's something that hadn't been quite as present in the new calendar year (truth be told, he’s always smiling but not as much as Monday night).
Walker had missed time with the flu, then knee soreness kept him out of a game. The Celtics had lost six of eight entering Monday’s visit from the rival Lakers and it was fair to wonder if much of Boston’s early-season success had been a bit of a mirage.
Then Boston went out and produced maybe its finest effort of the season. And Walker very much reveled in the 139-107 triumph on a big stage.
"This is what we should be on a nightly basis, and what we would like to be,” said Walker. "Hopefully the way we played tonight and this win will help us build in the future.”
In the same way that there’s a danger in overreacting to a short stretch of poor play, it’d be haphazard to put too much stock into a single victory — even if it involved handing one of the best teams in basketball their most lopsided loss of the year.
Still, here’s the notion that will be hard to resist: Monday’s game offered a glimpse of what a full-strength Celtics team can be.
Boston has so rarely had all of its horses this year that it’s been hard to draw firm conclusions about the team’s potential. The injury woes made their early-season success all the more startling and, while the team never really used it as a crutch during the recent rough patch, it was fair to wonder how much injuries were conspiring against Boston when it did struggle.
Walker and Brown had been questionable leading up to Monday’s game but the team got a double shot of good news. Stevens was able to trot out his preferred starting 5 for only the 13th time in 42 games and also tightened his rotation to essentially eight players, leaning heavier on the top-sub combo of Enes Kanter and Marcus Smart instead of the batch of rookies he’s had to throw darts with lately.
The results? Boston averaged 139 points per 100 possessions, according to stats site Cleaning the Glass. That’s a mark that ranked in the 99th percentile among all games this season and was Boston’s best mark of the year. Not too shabby for a team with the sixth-ranked offense in the league.
Boston’s effective field goal percentage of 65.2 was also its best of the year, as was its offensive rebound percentage after Kanter and Co. vacuumed up 14 of the team’s 41 total misses.
Even against a Lakers team gushing with length, Boston wasn’t bashful. Thirty of its 52 makes came near the rim. Some of that was Kanter’s putback but everybody attacked the rim. No one more notably than Jaylen Brown, whose early third quarter dunk on top of James left members of Boston’s bench wobbling around the parquet like clipped bowling pins.
“It’s a great reminder [of what this team is capable of],” said Brown. "We have to hold ourselves accountable to play with this type of energy and this type of effort every night. It just can’t be against the Lakers, we got to get up and play like that against Memphis in a few days. We got to be able to be resilient, humble, poised, and continue to move forward.”
What’s different about this team when they are near full health?
"Just much more dynamic,” said Tatum, who scored a game-high 27 points in 29 minutes, then declared that his dunk over James in Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference finals was still better than Brown’s jam.
"I feel like we’re tougher to guard when myself, JB, Kemba, Smart, when everybody’s out there. It makes it tougher for the other teams to guard and it makes it easier for all of us with so many guys that can do so many different things out there. Hopefully we can continue to stay healthy. Obviously, we’d love to have Rob [Williams] back, but we’ll keep it rolling until he gets back.”
For a Celtics team that sometimes let inconsistent offense affect an already slippage-filled defense, Monday was a nice reminder to stay the course. The Lakers scored the first eight points of Monday’s tilt, James tossing an alley-oop from Springfield off the opening tip, and things could have gotten out of hand in a hurry if Gordon Hayward didn’t knock down a long 3-pointer to settle the Celtics.
Hayward, whose own inconsistencies had left him in the crosshairs of frustrated fans, finished with 16 points on 6-of-12 shooting with six rebounds and five assists. He was vital in stretches, even if he won't make a highlight reel that will be dominated by Brown’s dunk, Tatum’s smooth scoring, and Walker’s tough-finish wizardry.
It’s prudent to remember that Davis was still shaking rust after missing time with a bruised backside. The Lakers certainly didn’t put their best foot forward. And, yet, the Celtics needed a game and beggars can’t be choosers.
"We needed it. We needed it. This is a really important game for us, and we treated it like it,” said Walker. "We executed. It was just one of those games to help us realize how talented we are and how good we can be and pretty much how bad we’ve really been playing.”
The Celtics learned that, when healthy, they can counteract some size issues against elite competition. That’s important considering their season-long struggles against Philadelphia. It sure feels like Monday was the best win of the season but only if the Celtics harness the positives.
"Good to be as close to full as we’ve been from a health standpoint. I’m hoping we can maintain that and build off of it,” said Stevens.
Later he added, “I want to see if we can play well with a sustained period with more bodies available and then we can gauge where we are, how good we are and all that stuff. But there’s still a lot of unknown. This is one game. Just like I think we didn’t overreact to losing the Phoenix game, we’re not going to overreact to winning this one.”
Stevens won’t overreact. The rest of us can. Like Walker, the Celtics needed something to smile about and, unlike some of the team's early-season wins, this doesn’t feel like fool’s gold.
This was a reminder of what the Celtics can do when healthy and engaged. It’s another indication that this team can hang with the NBA’s elite. Yes, a playoff series is a lot different than a random Monday night in January, but the Celtics can sweat that further down the road.
The Celtics needed something to smile about. But it won’t mean much unless they build off it.