5 takeaways as Kemba Walker’s 28-point night leads Celtics over Trae Young and the Hawks

Kemba Walker looked more like himself. So did the Celtics.

The Celtics took on the Atlanta Hawks on Friday.
Kemba Walker put up his strongest performance of the season in the Celtics' win over the Hawks. –John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

The Boston Celtics played one of their best halves of the season on Friday, taking a huge lead against the Atlanta Hawks into the break and holding on down the stretch for a 121-109 victory.

Five takeaways as the Celtics looked a little more like the team they hope to become later in the year.

Kemba Walker had an excellent first half.

The Celtics raced out to an early advantage led by Walker, who picked Atlanta apart. Walker buried 3-pointers off the dribble, snuck in layups, and dished out six assists including a couple of beauties ducking into the paint as the defense collapsed. Walker’s final stat line included 28 points on 10-for-16 shooting, and he poked away three steals.

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Walker set a good tone early. He opened his scoring with a pair of layups in transition, then buried a 3-pointer. In the first half, he dropped in 20, including nine in a 30-second stretch of the second quarter, and he found a variety of ways to score.

As always, the Celtics don’t need Walker to be a superstar. They just need him to be good. On Friday, he was very 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,” Brad Stevens said. “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.”

The Celtics’ fourth-quarter struggles continued.

The Celtics, one of the worst fourth-quarter teams in the NBA, entered the fourth with a 25-point advantage on Friday. With 4:50 left in the period, Trae Young (31 points, 10-for-16 shooting) buried a deep 3-pointer that cut Boston’s advantage to nine, and Brad Stevens furiously called a timeout, clapping at his team.

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The Celtics comfortably pulled away again and won by double-digits on their strength of their bigs (more on them in a minute), but Boston finished with its starters on the floor — a painful outcome with a day game against the New Orleans Pelicans looming on Sunday. Jaylen Brown’s knee probably could have used a break. Kemba Walker’s knee probably could have used a break. The Celtics played for three quarters like a team desperate to win, then let Atlanta creep back into the game.

Still, blowouts are very difficult to complete in the NBA, and the Hawks aren’t a pushover any more.

The Celtics’ bigs were excellent. 

Perhaps no play sums up the Robert Williams experience better than this one.

Williams bit on Clint Capela’s pump fake and nearly took himself out of the play, but his second jump was so quick, he managed to swat away Capela’s shot anyway.

Williams had a big impact on the offensive end, finishing with 12 points on 6-for-8 shooting. On one play in the first half, he showed off the ridiculous catch radius afforded him by a 7-foot-6 wingspan, big hands and great athleticism.

Still, Stevens seems to trust Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson more, especially down the stretch. On Friday, that proved to be the right decision, as Thompson and Theis rewarded Stevens for his continued faith. Stevens went back to the much-maligned double-big lineup, and the duo combined to shoot a sizzled 15-for-18 from the field, tallying 31 points.

Thompson and Theis together still have a negative net rating of -3.4 this season — 113.4 offensive and 116.8 defensive. In seven February games, however, they have trended upwards with a net rating of +2.4.

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Stevens stuck with the lineup through plenty of criticism in the first part of the season, and on Friday he noted that those early minutes — even though there were struggles — may have mattered quite a bit.

“I think it’s the benefit of playing that big lineup together early, right?” Stevens said. “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.”

Jayson Tatum turned the ball over quite a bit.

One downside on an otherwise successful evening for the Celtics: Tatum struggled to hang on to the ball, finishing with six turnovers to go with his six assists. Tatum can be a little turnover prone with his handle, and the Hawks stripped him four times on Friday.

As defenses increasingly look to take the ball out of Tatum’s hands with aggressive defensive schemes, he will need to figure out how to keep a tighter handle — he’s averaging 2.4 turnovers per game this season to go with his increase in assists (4.7).

Kemba Walker is content with his minutes.

Walker turned 30 last May as he struggled through knee issues. He just returned from a lengthy stretch of games on the bench and is slowly working himself back into shape.

Nobody doubts how much Walker loves the play, but he seems pretty content with 33-minute nights like Friday.

“I’m good, I’m good,” Walker said. “I’m just trying to stay healthy. That’s it.”

Stevens told reporters not to expect many more minutes for Walker in the near future.

“If they come back and send that game into overtime, I probably pull him and we probably don’t finish with him,” Stevens said. “But I know this sounds crazy, but that extra night off, there’s a reason he looks fresher, right? It just helped.”

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