The New York Knicks may have been vying for homecourt advantage heading into their Sunday matinee against Boston, but the Celtics didn’t come in with anything close to the same incentive to emerge victoriously.
Already slotted for the play-in tournament as the east’s No. 7 seed, the Celtics gave their best guys some-much needed rest. They had nothing to win and nothing to lose. They were at Madison Square Garden only to fulfill their schedule obligations.
Meaningless final regular season games are nothing new to the NBA. But what they lack in stakes is made up for in other ways. No stakes mean no reason to play the regular rotation, opening the door for others to come in and grab the spotlight if only for a couple of hours.
Without seven of Boston’s top eight in minutes per game, that standout could’ve been anybody. Romeo Langford had 14 and Grant Williams scored 13 with six rebounds, but in a game the Celtics didn’t have to fight for, two-way player Tremont Waters came off the bench and sparked a valiant comeback anyway, albeit in a 96-92 losing effort.
“It was our last regular season game and we just wanted to go out there and fight, do the best we can and show that we’re still fighters,” Waters said.
Waters’ performance didn’t really materialize until the fourth quarter. By that point, he had shot just 2-of-5 for four points in 13 minutes of action as the Knicks entered the final frame up by 12.
Payton Pritchard was one of the few rotation regulars to have suited up in this game as a starter, but Brad Stevens saw no reason to trot his valued backup point guard out into a game that was meaning less and less as the game progressed, paving the way for Waters to lead the comeback by going the whole way in the fourth.
Waters started with a step-back 3-pointer to help establish some momentum in the first minute of the fourth.
He would go on to hit two more from beyond the arc. More impressively, the sub-6 foot guard made a noticeable mark on the defensive end, coming up with two steals that resulted in fast break buckets for Boston, including a coast-to-coast finish to cut what was once a 21-point lead all the way down to a single point with just over two minutes remaining.
Stifling rim protection by Nerlens Noel ensured the Knicks would escape with a win, but Waters ensured the path to homecourt for New York would be a bit more complicated than expected.
During his 12 fourth-quarter minutes, Waters was 5-of-8 from the field and 3-of-5 on triples for 13 points along with three rebounds, two assists, and two steals. He finished the afternoon with 17 points, five rebounds, and five assists, the former two of which are career-highs for the sophomore guard.
“Yeah, I thought our guys came back,” Brad Stevens said after the game. The last group played with great poise, great purpose... and I thought that they did a good job.”
It’s remarkably telling of Waters’ impact that in a four-point game, the Celtics were a plus-20 in his 25 minutes and a minus-24 during his time on the bench.
He isn’t likely to see many minutes moving forward, but Waters’ performance in the face of adversity was the personification of the mentality the Celtics will need as they gear up to face Washington in the play-in tournament on Tuesday.