Despite playing without three key rotation players, the Boston Celtics came from behind to defeat the Orlando Magic 109-98 Friday night. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Enes Kanter all sat out for the Celtics, but Boston was still able to outscore the home team 56-41 in the second half.
Kemba Walker scored a game-high 37 points (12-23 from the field, 6-12 3PTA’s) to lead the Celtics. Forward Gordon Hayward added 22 points and 14 rebounds.
“Kemba got going. The single coverage (in the first half) wasn’t working,” Coach Steve Clifford said during his post-game conference regarding his team’s defensive approach against his former point guard. “And then when we went to the double-team, he just crushed it - it (the defense) was worse. He dribbled around us, he dribbled through us. It led to open three’s for everybody else, plus he got fouled and shot layups. You know, that’s what makes it hard.”
Orlando’s shaky defense from Wednesday night against Oklahoma City carried over to the beginning of Friday night’s contest. Boston made six of their first seven shots before Coach Clifford wisely called timeout.
The stoppage in play proved to be very effective for the Magic, who went on a 16-4 run to pull ahead early.
Khem Birch, who was inserted into the starting lineup just minutes before the game, pulled down seven rebounds within the game’s first seven minutes. Orlando enjoyed a 19-9 advantage over Boston on the boards in the first quarter.
Evan Fournier was shooting the ball straight early on for the Magic. Orlando’s starting shooting guard scored 10 of his 30 points in the first quarter.
Orlando came out on a 16-6 run to begin the second quarter, opening up a comfortable double-digit lead over the Celtics.
Walker started to get very loose in the second quarter. A perennial Magic-killer, Boston’s All-Star lead guard scored 17 points in the second period alone (27 points in 20 total first half minutes).
“I thought the main problem was Kemba tonight (once again),” Fournier said in front of his locker after the game. “You guys know over the last few years how he’s just been killing us. He’s like a little mouse that you can’t catch. He’s extremely clever with the ball, he can really shoot. So, he’s a tough coverage.”
Boston closed the first half on a 13-3 run, finished off by a Hayward three from the right wing - which was made possible because Javonte Green outfought two Magic players and tipped the ball out to the perimeter.
Both teams played evenly through the third quarter. A significant swing in momentum occurred when Markelle Fultz drove the lane, thinking he had a clean look at the rim. Going up for a massive dunk, Fultz was instead blocked at the rim by Daniel Theis. The Celtics turned the blocked shot into a fast-break opportunity, scoring on a thunderous Green dunk at the other end. A Theis jumper gave the Celtics a lead a few Celtic possessions later.
Green threw down another monstrous dunk towards the end of the period to give the Celtics their largest lead of the game heading into the fourth quarter.
Boston stretched their lead to 14 points and it looked like they were poised to run away with the game, but back-to-back buckets from Fournier cut the Celtic’s lead to nine.
Another Fournier jump shot with just under five minutes remaining made the contest a two-possession game.
A three-point field goal from Terrence Ross brought the Magic within five points, but that would be as close as the Magic would get.
“At the end of the day, if you’re going to beat that team, you have to play through contact,” Clifford added after the game. “(You have to) not turn the ball over, have clean possessions. It takes offensive energy and force and...we had none of that.”
Coming into Friday night, Walker has averaged 20.9 points per game in 31 career contests against the Magic. That number is on it’s way up.
“He’s really quick,” Ross said of Walker (in a rather matter of fact way). “He’s got a great handle and he can shoot.”
“I thought that he gave us everything he had in the first half,” Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said of Walker’s performance. “We were worried that he wouldn’t have much left because he played like 20-21 minutes (in the first half). He willed us to be in that game. And then it’s kind of one of those things where its up to everybody else to take it to another level at that point.”
Nikola Vucevic scored 17 points and grabbed 12 rebounds for the Magic, but he had a miserable shooting night from the floor. Vucevic has shot less than 40% from the field in six of Orlando’s last ten games
“Obviously, I missed a whole lot of good looks throughout the game,” Vucevic said in the locker room. “6 for 18 is not going to help our team much. We had some solid looks, I had some solid looks - I have to make them. I have to be more efficient offensively.”
Friday night’s win was Stevens’ 300th career win as a head coach in the NBA (all with Boston).
“I don’t really stop and think about that stuff,” Stevens told reporters after the game. “I mean, it’s great if we’ve had really good teams, we’ve had really good players, staff that works really hard and hopefully we can keep going.”
Fournier (11 for 19 from the field) reached the 30-point mark for the fourth time this season.
Things don’t get any easier for the Magic, who are now set to host Kawhi Leonard and the Los Angeles Clippers Sunday evening. They will be looking to avoid dropping a third game in a row.