The arena was howling and the noise from the video board deafening. Amid the cacophony, Lou Williams needed to get a message through to his Clippers teammates.
The guard has learned a few tricks in his 15 NBA seasons, and one of them is to watch opposing coaches closely. Coming out of a timeout, with the Clippers about to go on offense with 24 seconds remaining in overtime Thursday inside TD Garden, Williams trained his eyes on Boston’s Brad Stevens as the coach told Celtics players they had a foul to give before Los Angeles would shoot free throws.
Anticipating the Celtics would lunge to foul at their earliest opportunity while leading by three, Williams looked at Kawhi Leonard, Landry Shamet, Montrezl Harrell and Marcus Morris.
“Once you catch the ball,” he said, “go into your shooting motion before they foul you.”
The out-of-bounds pass found Williams in the corner, who hesitated before firing a shot that went in — with a free throw coming, after Dedric Taylor, the nearest official to the play, ruled Williams was fouled by Gordon Hayward. Williams’ foot was close to the arc but the Clippers believed it was a three-pointer.
Williams never got to take the free throw. Instead he was irate after officials convened, ruled he was fouled before the shot and erased the opportunity the Clippers believed they had to steal a win when they had already suffered a loss.
Behind a bravura performance from Jayson Tatum, Boston outlasted the Clippers, 141-133, in two overtimes in a result that, for Los Angeles, was overshadowed by a third injury to star forward Paul George’s left hamstring in the last five weeks.
George missed 10 games in January either because of tightness or a strain in the hamstring, and when he told coach Doc Rivers he was hurt at halftime, after scoring four points in the first half, Rivers sat him the rest of the night. George left the locker room with a slight limp and a wrap around his lower back.
“He said it wasn’t bad,” Rivers said. “I said, ‘You shouldn’t have told me that.’ I don’t think he wanted to come out. But once you tell me your hamstring, you feel anything, we have an All-Star break coming up, it’s a no-brainer for us.”
Kawhi Leonard scored 28 points on 27 shots and Shamet added 19 points for Los Angeles, which finished its final road trip before the All-Star break 1-3 and lost consecutive games for the first time since November.
Tatum scored 39 points, including 10 combined during the overtime periods. Rivers raved about Tatum before tipoff and the third-year pro used his crossover and step-back jumper to almost unstoppable effect, as his performance came on an efficient 23 shots. His layup with 24 seconds to play in the first overtime left the Celtics ahead by three.
He played hero on the eve of his first All-Star game appearance, but it easily could have been Williams too. He came off the bench to score 20 of his 35 points after the third quarter, including 11 consecutive early in the fourth quarter. One possession after Tatum’s clutch layup in the first overtime, his apparent four-point play put his team ahead — until they weren’t.
Said Harrell: “That’s a bad call.”
The Clippers (37-18) would tie the score immediately after officials changed the initial call on a three-pointer by Shamet. It was the second time a Clippers three tied the score in the final seconds. In regulation, Morris nailed a triple with 46 seconds remaining in to forge a 114-all tie.
Yet in a game with minuscule margins, Williams’ free throw that wasn’t dominated talk in the locker room afterward.
“[The official] said they had a foul to give and I said, ‘Duh, I know that, too,’” Williams said. “That’s why I went into my shooting motion. Sometimes in this league you understand the rules and so you try to beat the rules. I think we’re taking away some of that in our game with anticipating the calls or anticipating the scenarios where they’re up three points and we know they’re going to take a foul.”
Said Rivers: “I thought that was a big no-call.”
As he spoke, Hayward happened to emerge out of a nearby door, right next to the scrum of reporters surrounding Rivers. Unable to move through the crowd choking the hallway, Hayward had no way to duck the conversation.
“Gordon knows he fouled him!” Rivers said, smiling.
Trying to hold back a grin, Hayward responded quietly.
“It was close,” he said.