Celtics feast on Hawks to end three-game losing streak
ATLANTA — At this point, the Celtics can’t be picky about their opponent or style points. They walked away from their Friday evening against the league’s worst team with a victory, some impressive offensive stretches, and some rested players.
A 45-point first period was enough to put significant distance from the Atlanta Hawks, and then the Celtics spent the final three quarters scoring sporadically, staving off Atlanta runs, and grinding through 114-96 win at State Farm Arena.
It snapped a three-game losing streak and ended a difficult week for the Celtics, who were embarrassed at home twice. The rebuilding Hawks provided the perfect salve defensively as the Celtics raced out to a 22-point lead into the first period, looking as crisp with ball movement as they have all season.
Of course, in what has been an emotionally taxing season already, the Celtics couldn’t just enjoy their success. They managed just 37 points over the next two periods and watched as the Hawks kept trying to rally. Finally, a 12-3 run to open the fourth quarter extended the lead to 27 and the rest was garbage time.
Afterward, the Celtics weren’t so impressed with themselves, realizing the level of their competition (3-16 Atlanta) and a difficult game Saturday in Dallas.
“We did what we’re supposed to do, the start of a business trip,” guard Kyrie Irving said. “We did some good things. [It’s a matter of] not being complacent, not being satisfied. Obviously Atlanta has some good competition but we’re going to be going against some better competition in Dallas.”
The caveat from such a blowout win was coach Brad Stevens was able to limited the minutes of his starters with a game Saturday in Dallas. Irving played just 19:48 and Jayson Tatum logged 23 minutes. Aron Baynes led the Celtics with 16 points and six players scored in double figures as the Celtics shot 46 percent and held the Hawks to 6 for 35 from the 3-point line.
First-year Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce sat most of his starters for the second half and threw a bunch of youngsters and journeymen at the Celtics. The results were some ugly stretches of basketball, with Boston leading by as many as 29.
“Defensively, we were really locked in and engaged until the very end,” Stevens said. “It was a better first two-and-half-quarter performance. We’ve played really good defense at times this year. I don’t know if I would call it improvement until you do it for 10 straight games, so we’ll see.”
With Al Horford getting a night off with a sore left knee, Stevens countered with Marcus Morris in the starting lineup and the result was 36 points in the first 8:40, including a pair of Morris 3-pointers.
After the first period, the Celtics resorted to their previous offensive ways, committing turnovers, relying too heavily on the 3-pointer and not attacking the rim. The Celtics shot 39 percent in the final three quarters with 15 turnovers, but the victory helped ease tensions after a difficult past week.
“It’s one of those things where we still have a lot of room for improvement but it’s better to learn when you’re winning than it is learn when you’re losing,” Baynes said. “It was a pretty concerted effort to come in here and play the right way. It was a bit of a battle against human nature after the first quarter. We’re still trying to put together a full 48 [minutes]. We haven’t been able to do it.”
Still, the performance was good enough for a runaway win and some confidence after Stevens ripped his team’s effort in Wednesday’s loss to the New York Knicks. It was evident from the early going the Celtics’ players took their coach’s comments personally.
The momentum lasted for about a quarter in a half until the offense stalled after they had taken a 56-27 lead. Boston scored 5 points in the final 6:21 of the period and the margin was cut to 16 at halftime.
The Celtics followed the 45-point first quarter with a 16-point second, going 4 for 18 from the field and 2 for 9 from the 3-point line with six turnovers. The starting lineup without Horford, which looked so flawless in the opening period, combined for 5 points on 0-for-6 shooting in the second.
It was hard to determine whether the Celtics should be proud of their performance or disappointed they didn’t even approach 70 after a 45-point first period.
An encouraging sign was the ball movement and 3-point shooting, aspects the Celtics have been struggling with all season. And the inclusion of Morris into the starting lineup appeared to boost the offense.
Stevens said he wanted to keep Gordon Hayward coming off the bench so he could continue to mesh with the second unit. Hayward, who finished with 11 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 blocked shots, continues to look more comfortable.
In his past eight games, Hayward is averaging 10.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, and 4.3 assists.
“It’s coming with each game, definitely not where I want to be,” he said. “There’s so much more I can give to the team, but it’s slowly coming back. I gotta just keep working, keep getting in the gym and then hopefully you guys stop asking me those [getting it back] questions.”