The Boston Celtics really should not have needed overtime to edge a shorthanded Orlando Magic team in a rather meaningless seeding game on Sunday night. But the fact that Boston had to scrap its way to a very ugly win wasn’t such a bad thing.
Because of Kemba Walker’s minute restrictions, the team’s preferred starting 5 — Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, and Daniel Theis — hadn't gained much crunch-time experience together inside the bubble. But in need of a rally, Celtics coach Brad Stevens went with his first 5 for the last five minutes of regulation and was rewarded with a feverish final-minute rally that helped Boston escape with a 122-119 triumph.
The key sequence came with 38 seconds left, and Boston still down 5, when, after Brown missed a 3-pointer, a crashing Walker leaped between two white jerseys and deflected the ball back out to Tatum for a second-chance triple.
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A Daniel Theis block at the other end set up Tatum’s baseline spin move in which he shook fellow 2017 first-round pick Markelle Fultz and tied the game with 3.8 seconds to play. And, as if he hadn’t done enough in crunch time, Tatum blocked Terrence Ross’ last-gasp 3-point attempt to ensure an extra session.
"You’d never want to script it that way but it wasn’t at all bad to be down 5 [late in regulation] just to have to find a way in that moment, have to get stops, have to put our defense in a situation where we had to get a stop to go to overtime, had to get a bucket right before that,” said Stevens.
"It’s not all bad but there’s a lot that led up to that that we didn’t like as well that we’ll go back and look at to make sure we’re better.”
Boston’s starters, who played just 188 minutes together in 17 games before the season paused, have now logged 63 minutes together in Orlando. They’ve actually performed even better than the regular season with their net rating jumping from plus-12.5 to plus-13.1.
While the offense hasn’t been as crisp, Boston’s first-unit defense has been elite while limiting opponents to 94.6 points per 100 possession inside the bubble.
With Walker at his minutes limit after the fourth quarter, Stevens wasn’t able to trot that starter group out for even more time in the extra session. Instead, he simply swapped in Marcus Smart and the Celtics stiff-armed the Magic late to emerge with the victory.
From Walker making the hustle play to give his team a shot late, to Tatum thriving in the late-game spotlight, there’s a lot Boston can take into the postseason.
Boston’s playoff spot is already locked up with the team ensured the No. 3 seed. The Celtics’ final three seeding games, including Sunday’s dance with the Magic, are largely perfunctory. But Stevens stressed the importance of conditioning given that the playoffs won’t start for eight more days, and the situational work Sunday could aid this team when things are invariably tense in the postseason.
Hayward (31 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists, 1 block) turned in his best game of the bubble (and maybe in a Celtics uniform); Robert Williams continues to look like someone Stevens can lean on in small doses of minutes; Tatum and Brown had really good moments at various points Sunday; and the team overcame a rare Walker dud to find a way to win (Walker more than redeeming himself with the late-game tip-out to Tatum).
The Celtics probably wouldn’t have plucked much from a breezy, lopsided win. Having to tough out a victory, even if it was avoidable, might have maximized the value of Sunday’s tilt.
Boston must wait to see who emerges as the sixth seed in the East. Philadelphia was at nearly 55 percent to finish 6th, based on projections from ESPN’s Basketball Power Index entering Sunday’s action. And that probability will almost certainly jump up a bit because it was before the Sixers’ lost to Portland.
Right now Boston’s focus has to simply be on keeping everyone healthy and restoring the starters' confidence before the playoffs arrive. The starting 5 finally got some crunch-time tests. Hey, better late than never.
And Sunday’s finish couldn’t have been better for Boston.