With Al Horford missing the game because of left knee soreness, the Boston Celtics were finally able to get on the right track with a 114-96 win over the lowly Atlanta Hawks. A dominant first quarter gave the C's a huge early lead, and, even with incredibly inconsistent play over the final 36 minutes, they were able to do enough to maintain the early advantage.
Aron Baynes, yes you read that right, led the Celtics with 16 points and nine rebounds. Jayson Tatum added 14 points, Kyrie Irving chipped in 13 points, and Gordon Hayward stuffed the stat sheet with 11 points, five rebounds, four assists, and two blocks. Jeremy Lin led all scorers with 19 points off the bench, and Alex Len added 17 points of his own. On the first night of a back-to-back, no Celtic played more than 24 minutes.
Marcus Morris joined the starting lineup in Horford's absence, while Hayward remained with the bench unit to start the game. The Celtics, who have been getting off to terrible starts in the first quarter over the past few weeks, exploded out of the gates in Atlanta. Irving and Baynes, a dynamic duo if I have ever heard of one, combined for 16 points on 6-8 shooting in the first six minutes, leading to an early 20-11 lead. Shots were falling early, and they were falling from everywhere.
Boston has made a habit this year of making subpar teams look like game-breakers, i.e. the loss to the Knicks on Wednesday and needing OT to finish off the Suns on their west coast road trip. But the Celtics, most likely frustrated after dropping to 9-9 on the season, took out all of their aggression on Atlanta and their porous defense.
The Hawks' defense is exactly what this Celtics' offense needed.
The C's scored 45 points on 64 percent shooting from the field and knocked down 8 of their 12 threes in the opening frame. It has been abundantly clear that this team can't sustain this kind of efficiency, but after their recent struggles it was nice to see them just dominate someone on the offensive end.
Celtics had 45 points in the first quarter.
They had 45 points or less at HALFTIME in three of their last eight games.
The second unit, understandably, couldn't keep pace with the first quarter scoring output, but luckily the Hawks were having a Celtics-like, yeah, I said it, shooting slump. Atlanta started 1-14 from beyond the arc, and weren't helping their cause with six turnovers.
Boston didn't extend their lead, but did enough, especially on the defensive end, to maintain a 20-point lead for nearly the entire first half. But a 16-point quarter following the first quarter break out did nothing to encourage Celtics fans about the team's ability to put together a 48-minute effort.
The good news: The Celtics could have gone scoreless in the second quarter and still been tied with the Hawks.
The bad news: They only lead by 16 after following a 45-point first quarter with a dud.
And almost as if they could hear the concerns after a rough second quarter, the Celtics burst out of the halftime break with a 15-2 run to push the lead back into the mid-twenties after allowing it to shrink to 16 at the half. Physical defense led to transition opportunities, and getting back to ball movement lead to better scoring chances, like a loud put-back dunk from Tatum.
Just as you thought the C's had hit the kill shot and put the game out of reach, a 16-2 run from the Hawks cut the lead back to 15. This game was highlighted by stretches of play when the Celtics looked unstoppable, and then stretches where they game crashing back down to earth and let the Hawks hang around. The inconsistency has been one of the most frustrating parts of the team's start to the season. After a roaring start and a lackluster end, Boston had only extended the lead two points, and went into the fourth quarter leading 82-64.
A 7-0 start to the first quarter put the final nail in the coffin, as the Celtics pushed the lead back to 25 with just over 10 minutes to play in the game. The Hawks were able to get the lead under 20 points with six minutes remaining, but, like most of the night, the Celtics were able to do enough to keep the game out of reach.
After holding Trae Young to one of his worst games of his rookie year, the Celtics will get a chance to face off against Rookie of the Year candidate Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks in their next game on Saturday night at 8:30pm.
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Photo via Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images