Five takeaways from Celtics-Hawks: C's pass early season road test
BOSTON – Opening the season with 7 of the first 11 games on the road, it feels like the Celtics reached their first mile-marker of the year with Monday’s 110-107 win at Atlanta.
This was going to be a tough stretch for them regardless of who was healthy or not. But the degree of difficulty in winning increased exponentially with Gordon Hayward’s ankle injury, which is likely to keep him out all season, and the left knee soreness experienced by Marcus Morris, which kept him sidelined for the first eight games of the season.
Injuries be damned, this Celtics team continued forward in defying all early expectations with nine straight wins after dropping their first two games -- a first in league history. And in beating the Hawks, the Celtics put on a show that featured many of the factors that have collectively catapulted them to the top of the NBA standings.
Here’s a look at five takeaways from Boston’s 110-107 win over the Atlanta Hawks.
IRVING DOWN THE STRETCH
His play, combined with the team’s success, has vaulted Irving into being a legitimate league MVP candidate in the first few weeks of the season. Monday was vintage Irving, as he fought off some early shooting struggles and delivered one big shot after another one down the stretch. He led all players with 35 points, 12 of which came in the fourth quarter.
OFFENSE STILL OUT OF WHACK
As clutch as Irving was in the fourth quarter on Monday -- as well as rookie Jayson Tatum, for that matter -- the Celtics still don’t play with a level of consistency on offense that’s going to be required for them to have against some of the more elite teams in the NBA. The score was 54-54 at the half, which was way too close a game against an Atlanta Hawks team that’s not very good. The issue isn’t about talent. Boston has plenty of that, particularly on offense. More than anything, it’s about players figuring out the best way that their respective talents can be of benefit to greater good of the team. And as we’ve seen, it’s a lot easier said than done.
You really can’t say enough about how the Celts have been able to rebound the ball at a high level, all season. During their nine-game winning streak, the Celtics have out-scored and out-rebounded each of its last seven opponents. Against the Hawks, Boston won the battle of the boards, 42-36. Contesting shots and forcing turnovers have been key to Boston’s strong play defensively. But the C's ability to rebound the ball so effectively has been such a central component to what they do defensively.
We talk a lot about Jayson Tatum, and rightfully so. The kid is pretty damn good. But the bigger takeaway for the Celtics has been how dependent they have been on players with one year or less experience, this season. Tatum and second-year wing Jaylen Brown are both starting, and have shown themselves capable of being significant contributors sooner rather than later. And off the bench, rookies Daniel Theis (3 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists) and Semi Ojeleye (6 points, two rebounds) each chipped in scoring-wise on Monday, as well as with their defense.
The best teams don’t always have to play their best or close to their best, to always win games. That is what we saw on Monday from the Boston Celtics. You look at their body of work this season, and it’s clear that they are a better squad than the one we saw struggle for long stretches against the Hawks. When the game was on the line, Boston made all the big plays at both ends of the floor. So, the closer-than-expected road win may lead to some pauses about just how good this Celtics team is, the fact that they could have a sub-par performance and still get the victory speaks to how this team is built differently than Stevens’ previous four teams in Boston.