BOSTON — Fresh off of a loss on a game-winner Wednesday, the Celtics survived an Elfrid Payton missed layup in the closing seconds to beat the Magic 117-116.
Isaiah Thomas threw up a contested three with a chance to put the Celtics up four with less than 20 seconds remaining. It caught rim and Terrence Ross came down with the rebound with 13 seconds left. Instead of using one of their two timeouts left, Payton slowly took the Magic down the court for one last possession.
He caught Amir Johnson on a switch and took it to him, twisting Amir into a tricky contest. But Johnson, as he had done all night, follow Payton to the rim and put up a solid contest, forcing Payton off balance and sending the layup into the rim. Al Horford hauled in fifth rebound of the fourth quarter and the Celtics escaped with a win and a share of first place in the Eastern Conference.
“We got a great look at the front of the rim, made some contact that was a foul for Isaiah (Thomas) most of the night,” Magic coach Frank Vogel said of the final play. “Wasn’t blown, but that is the way the game is.”
Johnson said he got a finger on the ball, but made no contact. A review of a baseline angle shows minimal lower body contact, but not enough to warrant a foul call. Considering the refs did not call a foul on the Celtics in the final six minutes, that was pretty unlikely.
The Big Dog continued to stone wall the paint, as has been the trend lately. In his past five games, Johnson is allowing just 41.7% shooting at the rim, the third best mark in the NBA over that span per NBA Stats.
“He’s a guy that does a lot that’s not on the stat sheet,” Isaiah Thomas said of Amir. “Other than rebounding, he’s very vocal on the defensive end. He’s a guy that can guard multiple positions, so he helps us in numerous ways and he did a lot tonight.”
One of his biggest stops of the night came with just under two minuets left, when a white hot, steamrolling Aaron Gordon came charging at him in transition. Johnson held his ground and went vertical, twisting his body in the air to avoid fouling Gordon while contesting the shot. It was the crucial momentum changer that allowed the Celtics to take the lead.
Gordon was a game-time decision after injuring his left shoulder in a collision with former teammate Victor Oladipo Wednesday night. Watching him in warmups, he looked stiff and uncomfortable. As soon as the ball tipped, that disappeared quickly.
Johnson turned his ankle on an awkward landing in the first half after drawing a foul on a corner three. He played through the soreness, but was limping after the game. He even had to do his post-game press conference sitting down, a rarity. Johnson said he will travel with team to New York, but is not sure whether he will be able to play Sunday.
He crushed the Celtics in the first three quarters and finished with 32 points and 16 boards. He literally stampeded through the Celtics’ defense, including an innocent Marcus Smart trying to take a charge on the fast break.
Jaylen Brown filled in for Avery Bradley at the starting two and tried his best to fill the role all the way down to the same playcalls. Brown was utilized in the first half primarily as an off-ball shooter, running the same sets that free up Bradley off a series of dribble handoffs and flair screens to get open jumpers.
While the shots didn’t fall nearly as frequently as they do for Bradley, the execution was there. While the backdoor cuts were the same, Brown’s finishes were on a different, rim-rattling level.
Brown can still get stuck with his blinders on when he gets the ball in iso situations, to the point that a few bad shots in the second quarter earned him a quick pull and some tension from coach Brad Stevens.
But Brown came back out in the second half with the same lineups and same matchups. He finished with 12 points on 4-for-9 shooting (8 points in the first quarter), three rebounds and four fouls.
The Celtics got out to a sluggish start, as has been the case lately. It required adjusting Thomas’ fourth quarter rotations, having him start the quarter, sit for a couple minutes, and then play out the final 4:30. Brad Stevens made that decision to sustain the offense with the second unit, a major hurdle heading into the playoffs.
“I just thought, one of the things with comebacks are sometimes comebacks happen and then teams aren’t able to sustain that level of scoring and proficiency,” Stevens said of the move.
When asked if the team was potentially bored at game 76 of the season, Jae Crowder mumbled a scoff.
“I don’t know about boredom. We’re trying to win. We aren’t bored at all. A litte fatgue there, but it’s apart of it.”
THE DANCING BEAR DEBUTS STATESIDE
Celtics prospect Guerschon Yabusele made his long-awaited Maine Red Claws debut Friday, scoring 17 points with nine rebounds in a 122-105 loss to the Greensboro Swarm. Despite the loss, the Red Claws clinched a spot in the D-League Playoffs, ensuring further displays of ursine rhythm from the French Draymond.
Guerschon flashed all the skills that built up his hype in China, including some impressive defensive footwork for a rookie making his debut coming off an ankle sprain. But it was his explosive plays in space that will have the hype train flying out of the station.
Yabusele’s translatable skills made brief appearances Friday, as he executed a variety of actions on and off the ball that will fit smoothly into the Celtics’ system in the near future. Most notable was his perimeter skill on both ends. Yabusele showed he can attack off the dribble (maybe one day without traveling as shown below) and can flare to the elbow to bury a three off the catch.
But at the end of the day, it was journeyman Damien Wilkins’ incredibloe shot for his 40th point that defined this Red Claws loss.