The Boston Celtics had been feeling some frustration following a six-day stretch that saw them lose three consecutive games, including defeats to the lowly Phoenix Suns and the formidable, conference-rival Milwaukee Bucks. On Friday night and Sunday morning, the team held a pair of meetings to discuss their disappointing start to the season. As coach Brad Stevens put it: “A lot of those meetings start off like Festivus, then they end with hugs, right? So it’s just like any other family meeting. That’s where we were. We never got to the Feats of Strength. ... It was Christmas, wherever you are.”
On Sunday night, a return to (nearly) full health provided some of the answers the team had been searching for over the past week. The Celtics welcomed Al Horford and Marcus Morris back to the starting lineup after stints with knee injuries and rolled to a massive 119-103 victory over the Charlotte Hornets.
While it was a dominant performance from Kyrie Irving (25 points, 4 rebounds, 5 assists in just 29 minutes) that led the way for Boston, Sunday’s game was the kind of impressive collaborative effort the team has been searching for over the past week. In his first action after a seven-game absence, Horford looked as spry as ever, compiling 10 points (4-of-4 shooting), 6 rebounds and 5 assists in 19 minutes before the blowout no longer required his efforts. After a two-game absence of his own, Morris would tack on 12 points and 8 boards himself. For Charlotte, Kemba Walker would lead the way with 21 points, but the team struggled to find any kind of rhythm after the first quarter.
It was evident from the outset that this game was going to feature a heavy dose of the star guard matchup everyone wanted to see most. Irving would explode out of the gate with 17 first-quarter points, hitting his first six consecutive shots, while Walker would answer with 14 of his own. Offense was hard to find outside of the pair early on, however, as both teams managed just 12 points apiece outside the efforts of their stars.
Kyrie at the end of the shot clock... Splash. pic.twitter.com/QbEiw50jVC— Boston Celtics (@celtics) December 23, 2018
While the Hornets’ offense would stagnate with Walker off the court to open the second quarter, the Celtics trended the opposite direction, outscoring Charlotte 39-21 in one of their most dominant second periods of the year. Irving would tack on six more points, but it was complimentary performances from Morris (10 points), Terry Rozier (7 points, 3 assists) and Jaylen Brown (2 steals) that would power Boston forward in the second.
Of particular note: early in the quarter, Gordon Hayward threw down an alley-oop dunk off a play that will feel very familiar to fans who watched last year’s season opener against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
GORDON HAYWARD ALLEY-OOP ALERT pic.twitter.com/G3RkocCCgL— Taylor Snow (@taylorcsnow) December 23, 2018
The bench's reaction to Hayward's dunk pic.twitter.com/XIy9I2RgI9— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) December 23, 2018
The Celtics refused to take their foot off the gas in the third quarter, riding an iron-clad defense and some sharp scoring from Jayson Tatum to open with a quick 8-2 run and push their lead as high as 33 points near the end of the quarter. Tatum in particular seemed to find his stride, tacking on nine of his 17 points in the third, including an ice-cold four-point play late in the quarter.
From there, it was a bog standard fourth-quarter blowout for the Celtics, apart from a brief scare where Jaylen Brown appeared to aggravate a lingering hand injury on an attempted alley-oop to Robert Williams. Horford’s return would be limited to just 19 minutes, as he joined Irving and the rest of the starting lineup on the bench the rest of the way.
The Celtics improve to 19-14 with the victory. Next up, they’ll host the Philadelphia 76ers (now with Jimmy Butler) on Christmas Day, at 5:30 PM on ABC.
Coach Brad Stevens: