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Boston Celtics hang tough, withstand Los Angeles Clippers, 119-115

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Despite the absence of Jaylen Brown, the Celtics found a signature win against the Los Angeles Clippers

NBA: Boston Celtics at Los Angeles Clippers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Shorthanded as they always seem to be, the Boston Celtics visited the Los Angeles Clippers on the road Friday night and scored one of the best wins of their season. Jayson Tatum scored a game-high 34 points, Kemba Walker added 24, and Carsen Edwards added a surprise 16, and the Celtics toppled a combined 46 points from Kawhi Leonard and Lou Williams to defeat the Paul George-less Los Angeles Clippers, 119-115.

It was a sluggish start for the Celtics tonight. Without Brown on the court, the Boston offense seemed to be scuffling, managing just four points in the first five minutes of play before a Tatum pull-up three prompted a Los Angeles timeout. On the Clippers’ side of things, newly minted starter Luke Kennard provided the early spark. He scored eight points in the opening possessions of the game, powering them to a very early 11-point lead.

Thankfully, the Celtics have Jayson Tatum, because he was the one Celtic who seemed able to find his shot in the first quarter. In fact, he was the only Boston player to make more than one bucket — he connected on four of his first seven attempts, while the rest of the Celtics’ roster went just 5-of-15. Tatum led all scorers with 10 points in the first, but the Celtics ended the quarter trailing 33-21.

The second quarter opened with contributions from the bench, as Robert Williams and Carsen Edwards provided a little bit of verve for the Celtics offensively. Williams found his way to a couple nice finishes at the rim, and Edwards opened the game connecting on all three of his three-point attempts. With their efforts, the Celtics managed to hang around despite the Clips’ continued offensive dominance (they shot 62% from the field in the half). The lead hovered around the 10-point mark for much of the quarter.

As the second quarter plowed forward, however, the Clippers seemed to have a pretty clear edge in terms of execution. It was as if the Celtics were taking one step forward and two steps back. The Los Angeles lead became 10, then 12, then 14, then 16, and the Celtics seemingly struggled to stem the tide. Tatum again played the hero, however, and a strong surge from the Boston superstar helped trim the deficit to “just” 11 points entering the half, 62-51.

Opening the second half, the Boston offense seemed a little more lubricated. In a surprise call, Brad Stevens opted to start Edwards to open the half in place of Theis, and his fit in the lineup seemed to gel extremely well. Relative to the stakes of the game, tonight was perhaps the most impressive performance of Edwards’ career to this point.

Boston started to whittle into the Clippers’ lead in the opening minutes of the quarter, though progress was slow. Leonard proved to be a sizeable roadblock. He surged ahead to a game-high 20 points midway through the third quarter, in large part due to his prowess at the free throw line (12-14 for the night). He found himself matched up on Boston’s Grant Williams often, and while Williams defended Leonard admirably when called upon, the whistle just didn’t go in his favor.

It wasn’t long before Williams found his redemption, however, as the Celtics found their first lead of the game with just under five minutes to play in the third quarter after he nailed a three-pointer. A Tatum layup moments later would push the Boston run to 16-2, and build the Celtics a four-point lead.

The Clippers counter-punched within the next couple possessions, as Leonard tied the game back up at 79 with a pair of free throws, but Boston had finally established themselves in the driver’s seat. They went on a blistering scoring run in the final minutes of the third, including notable buckets from Semi Ojeleye and Payton Pritchard. The Celtics ultimately outscored the Clippers 38-20 in the third quarter, and entered the final frame leading 89-82.

The early minutes of the fourth quarter proved to be more or less a wash, as the two teams mostly traded buckets before Stevens gave Tatum a brief break around the 10 minute mark in the quarter. This is when Zubac made arguably his biggest impact, bullying the Celtics in the paint for some hard-fought finishes at the rim. He hit all three of his attempts in the paint to open the quarter, prompting a Stevens timeout with nine minutes to play, with the Celtics hanging onto a five-point lead.

After a few traded possessions, the Clippers clawed their way back to just a three-point deficit. With just under six minutes to play, one of the wildest possessions of the evening unfolded, with the Celtics grabbing four offensive rebounds in one sequence despite every shot being a quality look. Despite all the second chances, they couldn’t come away with any points, and in a tough swing, former Celtic Marcus Morris quickly tied the game up with a three-pointer on the other end.

The Celtics didn’t let that unfortunate sequence phase them, as they quickly returned to pole position on a pair of two-pointers from Walker, putting the Celtics ahead 106-104 with four minutes left to play. Returning to play from a timeout, Leonard promptly drilled a pair of midrange jumpers to push the Clippers back ahead by two. The return to the lead was short lived, though, as Edwards drew a foul on a three-point attempt and connected on all three free throws to put the Celtics back in front.

The two teams went back and forth for a few possessions as time dwindled down. The Celtics stretched their lead all the way to two whole points, but with 45 seconds remaining, Leonard shrugged off a double team and found Lou Williams in the weak side corner for a wide open three to put the Clippers back ahead by one. On the next possession, a sloppy Tatum pass would result in a Boston turnover, but heads-up play by Walker resulted in a steal, bringing the ball back to the Celtics, and his midrange pull-up jumper would restore the lead for the Celtics once again.

Coming out of the ensuing timeout, Leonard missed a midrange jumper over Ojeleye. The Clippers intentionally fouled Tristan Thompson, the rebounder, but Thompson converted on both of his free throw attempts. Leonard missed a three-point attempt on the ensuing possession, and after grabbing the defensive board and being intentionally fouled, Grant Williams went to the free throw line and converted both his attempts. Williams cashed in on a pull-up three with eight seconds left to play, but there simply wasn’t enough time left on the clock. Walker connected on a pair of free throws and the Clippers couldn’t find a shot before time expired, and that was all she wrote.

Next up, the Celtics travel to Phoenix to face off with the Suns, this Sunday at 2 PM Eastern on NBA TV.