Kemba Walker and Daniel Theis watched from the bench Wednesday as the Celtics were handed a humbling defeat by the Hawks. But both were on the court for the rematch at TD Garden on Friday, and they ensured that the result would be different, leading Boston to a 121-109 win.
Walker had 28 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds, and Theis scored 10 of his 14 points in the final five minutes, helping finish off the Hawks after they had sliced a 27-point deficit to just 9.
“That extra night off, there’s a reason [Walker] looks fresher, right?” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “It just helped. And Theis, too. Theis just looked different tonight than even he had, and he always gives us good bounce.”
The Celtics shot 56.2 percent overall and 41.2 percent from the 3-point line, helping them overcome a 31-point, 11-assist night from Hawks guard Trae Young.
Observations from the game:
▪ It was clear from the start that Walker was locked in and moving well. In addition to his eight first-quarter points he had two pretty assists, including a nice dish to Robert Williams and an alley-oop lob to Jaylen Brown from beyond midcourt. But that was just the start of his dominant first half. In the second quarter he put an exclamation point on the Celtics’ powerful 20-3 run by scoring 9 points in just 40 seconds, including a pair of 3-pointers and a 3-point play. It was the kind of surge that seemed fairly common when Walker played for the Hornets but has been rare during his Boston tenure so far.
“Kemba’s been really good,” Stevens said. “We struggled through this stretch, and there’s been a lot of angst and a lot of talk, but in three of the last four games Kemba’s played, we’ve won. And in all four games, he’s played pretty darn well. You see this, you can tell he’s really coming. So that’s a real positive for our team.”
▪ Walker has yet to play in games on consecutive nights this season, as the Celtics proceed cautiously with his troublesome left knee. In addition to protecting the knee, though, this approach also has given him some extra rest during an unusually jam-packed season, and it has seemed to help. Walker’s three highest scoring games of the year have come after he sat out a game to rest.
He said he can tell that his extensive knee-strengthening program is paying dividends. He has made it quite clear over the past two seasons that he would like to play more, but after Wednesday’s win he acknowledged that it’s not worth pressing that issue anymore.
“I feel really good,” he said. “Having fun, just getting stronger every day.”
▪ The Celtics led, 98-73, at the start of the fourth quarter, putting them in position to give their stars a lengthy rest during this grueling stretch. Instead, Atlanta scored the first 11 points of the period and pulled within 103-90 on a Solomon Hill 3-pointer with 7:44 left.
Stevens called timeout and Brown and Walker were sent back in the game, and the Hawks eventually sliced the deficit to 9 behind their zone defense. It was not an ideal way to finish what looked like it would be a convincing win.
“We’re up by 20-22 points, and we have to close it out,” Tristan Thompson said. “Those last six minutes are supposed to be dedicated to Tremont Waters, Aaron, Tacko Fall, Carsen Edwards. Those last six minutes are supposed to be for those young guys. It’s selfish on our part, the first and second units, that we didn’t step on [the Hawks’] necks … because those guys deserve to go out and get some minutes.”
▪ The Celtics were gashed for 60 points in the paint in Wednesday’s loss in which they allowed the Hawks to shoot 57.1 percent from the field, but it was clear at the start that Boston’s defensive intensity would be different. In the opening stretch, Theis had a powerful block of a John Collins dunk attempt, Walker stripped Cam Reddish, and Jayson Tatum stepped into a passing lane for a quick steal. The Hawks would have to have success beyond the perimeter to have a chance, and they did not.
“We looked a little bit more like ourselves,” Stevens said. “We protected the paint a lot better, got back in transition a lot better, and that continued all the way until we let go of it a little bit there in the fourth with that big lead.”
▪ Even with Walker and Theis back, rookie Aaron Nesmith continued the recent trend of being Boston’s first sub off the bench. He drilled a nice catch-and-shoot 3-pointer from the top of the key on a designed play but then air-balled his next one from the left corner. Bad misses happen, but Nesmith seemed to remember it when he passed up an open 3-pointer moments later. He passed the ball to Payton Pritchard, who had also just missed a 3, and also declined to take his open attempt.
But Nesmith is making an impact elsewhere. He grabbed four rebounds in 19 minutes and was involved in several hustle plays.
“Just how hard he plays,” Tatum said, “that’s the thing that really stands out to me on both ends.”
▪ Pritchard is in the midst of his first true shooting slump, making just 2 of 19 3-pointers over his last five games after going 6 for 8 in the Feb. 11 win over the Raptors.
▪ Robert Williams was an essential part of the Celtics’ dominant first half. A couple of highlights: Stripping Trae Young in the open floor and rushing upcourt to convert an alley-oop, finishing a high alley-oop pass by banking the ball of the glass.