If you really think about it, the Boston Celtics had no business winning tonight’s game in Atlanta. For one, they were playing without Marcus Smart (ankle), Malcolm Brogdon (hamstring), and Robert Williams III, who has yet to play this season due to the surgery he had on his left knee in the offseason. In addition to their dwindling depth, the Hawks match up incredibly well with the Celtics, especially the way they’ve been playing so far this season. Atlanta is off to its best 14-game start since 2016-17 (also 9-5, though they started 9-2); the Hawks currently own the league’s 10th-best defense, one that looks born to counter Boston’s top-ranked offense.
What’s more? Trae Young and Dejounte Murray’s mouths were likely watering pregame when Smart and Brogdon’s absences were announced. Clint Capela has returned to his Houston form, as he’s averaging 16.5 points and 16 rebounds per game over his last four, and without any reliable size beyond Al Horford, Capela was primed to feast. Justin Jackson and Blake Griffin were set to see minutes for the Celtics. To write it off as a win for the Hawks wouldn’t have been the worst bet to place.
Didn’t matter. Not a lick of it. The Celtics were dominant, winning their eighth-straight game, 126-101. Boston improves to 12-3 and still has the league’s best record. Better yet, they far and away look to be the league’s best team.
The Celtics jumped out to a 30-18 lead in the first quarter, but not because the usual suspects led the way in scoring. Instead, Boston pulled ahead because everyone in the rotation, no matter their status, contributed in a variety of ways. Jayson Tatum, despite shooting just one-for-seven from the field in the opening frame, racked up six assists and a handful of rebounds. Derrick White was a force at the rim — *raises eyebrows* — and stuffed the stat sheet from the opening tip. Luke Kornet had three blocks; Sam Hauser caught fire. It felt like the Celtics played a complete game within the span of just 12 minutes.
The Hawks worked their way back into the game in the second behind efficient shot-making by Murray — 19 points in the game — but not by much. Boston maintained a double-digit lead through most of the second quarter, and though the Hawks made their way within seven, their “comeback” felt like it was more so due to missed shots and unforced errors on the Celtics' part than it was due to Atlanta’s performance on either end. Grant Williams, Derrick White, Sam Hauser, and Payton Pritchard combined to score 36 of Boston’s 62 points at halftime; Pritchard drained a deep three to push Boston’s lead to 62-53. It never felt all that close.
The same went for the third, during which the Celtics pushed ahead, 97-78, and again in the fourth, when their lead stretched to a max of 27 points and they put the Hawks away with ease. Jaylen Brown led the Celtics with 22, but six other Celtics — Jayson Tatum (19), Grant Williams (18), Derrick White (16), Sam Hauser (15), Luke Kornet (!!!) (15), and Payton Pritchard (14) — finished in double figures,
The Eastern Conference is remarkably competitive this season — the Celtics sit at the top, while the Hawks are currently in third — but if tonight’s walloping proved anything, it’s that the Celtics are miles ahead of the competition, even when they’re not at full strength. Three of Boston’s five best players were missing in action due to injury, yet the Celtics put together their most complete effort of the season and thrashed Atlanta in a way it hadn’t been all season. Tatum and Brown didn’t have to go nuclear for Boston to walk away winners in Atlanta, yet it did regardless, and easily. Make that eight straight for the NBA’s best team; they’re showing no signs of slowing down.
Next up for the Celtics: They head to New Orleans on Friday, and remain on the road until next Monday.