Take a deep breath, Celtics fans.
It’s a long season, and with the postseason in mind, strategic rest and a lack of synergy early in the year would always be apparent. But we needed this.
Boston led the Atlanta Haws 66-41 at halftime, then stomped out a frantic fourth-quarter run from their foes for a 121-109 victory. The Celtics shot 40% from 3-point range, 55.6% overall and were firing on all cylinders.
Most importantly, this game was a reminder of just how good this offense can be when Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum all show up. The backcourt trio of Boston’s best players erupted for a combined 70 points, 17 rebounds, 18 assists and shot 12-23 from deep.
For Walker, Friday night was easily his best performance of the year. He tallied 28 points on 10-16 shooting (5-8 from deep), 6 assists, 5 rebounds and 3 steals. It was his first 20-point, 5-dime outing of the year after having thirteen such evenings a season ago. The shooting eruption at the end of the first half was critical to plunging the Hawks further down heading into the break. He scored nine points in the final two minutes of the frame, including two treys.
Walker’s pull-up shooting from deep is a vital part of the Celtics offense. When he’s hitting these, he’s a really tough guy to guard:
Where Kemba has struggled this year hasn’t necessarily been as a jump shooter. His lift-off, change-of-pace and herky-jerky unorthodox finishes have all been stunted, either due to rust or the balky knee. He hasn’t had the same spring in his step or ability to explode when he needs to. The result has been some rushed finishes, a lot of diving into opponents hoping to get a foul and a stunningly low shooting percentage at the rim.
However tonight, the most important part of Kemba’s game was how good he was at the rim. He looked like the Walker of old, a livewire driver jumping around like an energy ball and dancing at a pace of his own. He drew a few and-1’s, converted some tough finishes and had a spark that’s been absent for months:
By the fourth quarter, the Hawks began to trap Walker beyond the 3-point line. The move was out of necessity, as they couldn’t let him just torch them possession after possession. It’s the first time all year he’s commanded such attention from his opponent.
The joy in seeing him succeed and look like himself shouldn’t completely overshadow the great nights elsewhere. Brown was an efficient 17-point, 6-rebound guy who only took twelve shots and his four first-quarter assists helped the C’s get off to a great start.
For some reason, Cameron Reddish was going under on his screens all night. The high-IQ Brown made him pay, finding ways to dance behind his teammates and launch some quality jumpers.
When he’s in a rhythm and has time to rise, Brown’s been an elite shooter this year:
While Tatum’s six turnovers is an eye sore, it was another strong night from the youngster. He hit some really tough pull-ups (as he always does) and carried the C’s offense scoring-wise while Walker and Brown rested. Iso-ball played through Tatum may not always be aesthetically-pleasing, but it packs a potent punch.
An area Tatum has always been a tad underwhelming is in his finishing at the basket off the pick-and-roll. For such a big, rangy athlete, Tatum doesn’t play really explosively. He’s much more prone to be a patient finisher, jumping off two feet and pump-faking the defense to death. He’ll use crafty side-steps or high-arcing floaters off the glass to out-maneuver shot blockers. He loves to patiently wait for a roller to get back in front, then snake his way around a sealing big for an uncontested layup.
Rarely does he attack with pace. Straight up, no shenanigans, just as fast as he can towards the rim. He did it on Friday, releasing a sound from me that is some combination of “finally” and “dang, that was nice”:
Once again, it was Tatum’s 3-point barrage that helped the Celtics really propel the lead to where it was out of reach. We still seem to take for granted how special Tatum can be as a one-on-one scorer, and how rare it is for guys his size to self-create quality 3-point looks on the regular.
The degree of difficulty of Tatum’s patented side-step jumper is super high. It’s one of the hardest shots in basketball, willingly taking his momentum to the side where the turn of his hips towards the rim becomes so important. He has to do it against the other team’s best defenders, late in the clock, when everyone in the arena knows it’s coming. And it’s still somehow efficient and he easily replicates the results.
He’s special. This is special. Don’t take it for granted.
When the Big Three collectively shoot like this, the Celtics are a pretty damn tough team to stop. All three create their own looks of such high-quality off isolations or ball screens. When they’re all hitting from deep, the defense creeps up on the perimeter and is away from the basket. That’s where the big guys start to lick their chops.
Thanks to the hot-shooting evening from the three-man backcourt, Tristan Thompson and Daniel Theis also put up stellar nights. They combined to shoot 15-for-18 from the field, as well as seven assists as they tore up the Hawks weak interior defense. Even Robert Williams had a sensational outing (12 points, 7 rebounds, and 4 blocks in 16 minutes). None of these bigs need to be guys the C’s run plays for. They get enough quality looks just off the attention paid to their teammates. Their offensive outputs are heavily dependent on the other three playing at their best.
All five starters had at least three assists. While the bench continues to be hit-or-miss, there’s enough firepower with this starting group to remain optimistic that it’s a group that can succeed during meaningful postseason minutes. We’ve all known it. We just haven’t seen it in a while.
It was nice to finally see it again on Friday.