Forty-eight hours after being pushed around by John Collins, dunked on by Clint Capela and having 3s splashed in their face by Trae Young, the rested and rejuvenated Celtics punched back Friday with a fortitude they’re going to need to maintain and increase to make a run in the Eastern Conference.
Their 121-109 win at TD Garden wasn’t a masterpiece; Atlanta whittled a 27-point deficit to 9 in the fourth quarter, but it was good enough to build on as the Celtics embark on a difficult three-game road trip where they will face Zion, Luka and Trae again.
But it was critical the Celtics board their plane Saturday for New Orleans with a win, and it was perhaps the most significant win of the season. The Celtics have beaten better teams on more grand stages but they have not consistently looked like a team that could contend, and this week has been tumultuous with president of basketball operations Danny Ainge saying his team was not a championship contender.
Of course the players got wind of these statements in the social media era, and Ainge right now is right. The first step back to being considered one of the conference elites is the Celtics beating teams they should beat. They had lost to Detroit, Washington and Atlanta over the past week, a painful stretch of bad basketball, defensive slippage and lackadaisical moments.
On Friday, the Celtics got the lift from Kemba Walker they have expected but not received until recently. He finished with 28 points on 10-for-16 shooting, including a stretch of 9 points in 39 seconds late in the first half. Those types of spurts are exactly what the Celtics have been craving, especially with Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum having to shoulder most of the scoring load each night.
It’s the most points Walker has scored in nearly 13 months and it’s shades of what he is capable when healthy and rested. What’s more, of Walker’s 10 career 30-plus point games with Boston, seven of those were reached in the first two months of last season.
Walker hasn’t been the same scorer for a while but he has maintained he’s fully healthy following a postseason knee procedure that cost him the first 12 games of the season. In his past seven games, Walker is averaging 19.4 points.
“Kemba’s been really good; we’ve struggled through this stretch and there’s been a lot of angst, a lot of talk but in three of the last four games Kemba’s played, we’ve won,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “And in all four games he’s played pretty darn well. You can tell he’s really coming, so that’s a positive for our team. He was by far our best player in Washington and then he was good against Denver and I thought he was terrific [Friday].”
All five Celtics starters scored in double figures and Stevens maintains his two-big lineup with Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson. And if that duo can also score effectively — they were a combined 15 of 18 from the field — then the Celtics will obviously be more formidable.
But these parts all have to work together simultaneously. On Friday, they did.
“”I’m feeling really good, getting stronger every day,” Walker said. “It’s fun when you’re playing together and things are going well. When you play hard, everything just takes care of itself for the most part.”
Walker maintains that the team won’t let him play in the second game of back-to-backs to preserve his left knee. He is resigned to that fact, placing more emphasis on the games he does play, such as Sunday at New Orleans and Tuesday at Dallas.
The Celtics should be a better team with Walker on the floor. They have to be. One of the most important goals for this season, besides using the $28.5 million trade exception on an impact player, is getting Walker back to his pre-All-Star Game form when he was carrying the Celtics offense at times.
In an 11-day span in January 2020, Walker had games of 40, 37 and 35 points. There was spring in his step and he was brimming with confidence. That player had been replaced until recently by one unsure of himself and insecure about his health. Walker turns 31 in May and if you’re any NBA player — besides LeBron James — you have to monitor your health once the clock strikes 30.
Walker is learning to manage his knee and the overall pain from an 10-year NBA career better than when he didn’t have those concerns during his Charlotte days. He was an iron man with the Hornets, playing in at least 79 games in five of his first eight seasons, including 82 in his final season there before signing with the Celtics.
The pounding has taken its toll and the Celtics are astute in managing his workload but they need a payoff from the extra time out. And Walker is beginning to provide those dividends. Like everything else with the Celtics, the production just has to stay consistent.