Walker, Celtics bounce back with win over Atlanta

The Celtics, who have been using the .500 mark as a trampoline, headed back toward the ceiling on Friday night thanks to a 121-109 win over Atlanta.

After shooting at a 60% clip throughout their win over the Celtics on Wednesday night, the Hawks returned to the snow-bound Garden on Friday and bumped into a very different kind of defensive presence by the home team.

As a result, and as preached by their coach, more stops translated into a better offensive flow, this time with the Celtics shooting at that 60% clip for most of the night. Kemba Walker turned in arguably his best game of the season with 28 points on 10-for-15 shooting, with Jayson Tatum (25 points, 10-for-21) and a near-perfect Robert Williams (12 points, 6-for-8) picking up the pace. Tristan Thompson shot 8-for-9 for his highest scoring night as a Celtic with 17 points.

And, as evidence that ball movement isn’t dead, the Celtics tacked 26 assists onto their 50 baskets. Daniel Theis – back from a two-game finger-related absence – was the main beneficiary down the stretch. The Celtics center scored 10 of his 14 points in the last 7:49 of the game, almost all of it off back cuts, including two assisted by Thompson. Tatum, Walker and Jaylen Brown also fed a Theis hoop during this closing kick. Each of the latter three finished with six assists.

Brad Stevens was particularly proud of the developing chemistry between Theis and Thompson.

“I think it’s the benefit of playing that big lineup together early, right?” the Celtics coach said of his two starting big men. “We all know the numbers weren’t good in the first two or three weeks of the season, but we won a lot of those games. We talked about that. So I think they just got better. They got a better feel for playing with one another.

“I thought that changed a little bit in the past few weeks,” said Stevens. “Both Theis and Tristan were excellent when they played together today, I thought.”

But above all, with the aid of a rest program that keeps him out on the second night of back-to-back swings, Walker appears to have hit stride. Only the team’s recent struggles – Walker was the only Celtic who played well during last Sunday’s loss in Washington – have obscured the veteran point guard’s return to form.

“Kemba’s been really good. We struggled through this stretch, and there’s been a lot of angst and a lot of talk, but in three of the last four games Kemba’s played, we’ve won, and in all four games, he’s played pretty darn well,” said Stevens. “You see this, you can tell he’s really coming. So that’s a real positive for our team. He was by far our best player in Washington and then he was good against Denver, and then I thought he was terrific tonight. He took on a challenge of chasing Young all over the place too. (Young) ended with 31, but I thought the first three-and-a-half quarters, we guarded him pretty well.”

It’s all about the rest plan: Walker played an active 34 minutes last night, and based on the result, Stevens isn’t going to change the plan anytime soon.

“I think that the max of what he would play anytime in the near future is what he played tonight,” said Stevens. “If they come back and send that game into overtime, I probably pull him and we probably don’t finish with him. But I know this sounds crazy, but that extra night off, there’s a reason he looks fresher, right? It just helped.”

Walker isn’t one to argue, though he would clearly love to play into the mid or high 30’s some night.

“I’m good. I’m good. I’m just trying to stay healthy. That’s it,” he said. “It just is what it is. To be honest, they just not going to let me play.. It really don’t even matter, to be honest. Even if I wanted to play, which, c’mon now, everyone knows I want to play. It’s been set so just try to take it. It is what it is.”

Motivation? Tatum was unaware that neither Shaquille O’Neal or Charles Barkley had him on their all-star team during Thursday night’s TNT extravaganza. And he wasn’t sure what to make of it.

“Nah, I didn’t see that. I mean, I’m sure some people last year didn’t have me on there, who they thought should have made it,” he said. “But I mean everybody has their own respective opinion. I mean, I didn’t see it. So everybody has their opinion on who they think should make it. There’s a lot of guys that deserve to make it. And we’ll see.”

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