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CHARLOTTE — Kemba Walker returns to his former home Thursday on a hot streak.
He’s averaged 28.8 points over the five games since his 12-point opening night in Philadelphia, including three straight games of 32 points or more. He’s shot .458 (22-for-48) from 3-point range in that time, and when he looks around, Walker realizes that he’s not scoring in a vacuum.
Unlike Charlotte, where Walker spent his first eight seasons carrying the offense with a middling level of help, the point guard can survive the occasional off night thanks to his support. Gordon Hayward, who had a career tying 39-point night in Cleveland on Tuesday, has averaged 19.4 points and 4.8 assists over the same stretch. Jayson Tatum, the young scoring star to Walker’s veteran, has scored at a 21.4 clip, including 41 percent (14-for-34) 3-point shooting.
Numbers like these are a relief for Walker.
“Love it, I love it,” he said. “I’m still going to be aggressive and pick my spots. Like Gordon had 39, JT is chiming in, Smart is chiming in. Guys are doing their part, just playing great basketball. Very unselfish, all of them.”
The Celtics didn’t just beat Cleveland Tuesday night. They apparently inspired the Cavs as well. Consider Kevin Love’s gushing review of how the Celtics move the ball.
“They just really, really share the ball. It’s infectious — that ball has energy,” said the Cleveland star. “They want to make the play for the next guy. They play a lot for each other, they celebrate each other, and I think we’re eventually going to get there.
“Brad Stevens knows exactly what he wants out of those guys,” said Love. “They’re in great spots. They can play small ball, but their brand of basketball is great.”
This is also how the rebuilding Cavaliers want to play — how John Beilein, who has a mutual admiration with Brad Stevens, wants to see his team move the ball.
“The Celtics are really good,” said the Cavaliers coach. “I think they got enough guys that they can beat you individually. Brad ran some great schemes to get them open. Hayward was so good and then Kemba 6-for-8 shooting and of course (Carsen) Edwards.
“But they move the ball the way Cleveland is going to move the ball,” said Beilein. “The ball does not stick, they hit the next open man. When we are doing that as a team we are a much better team and we are trying like crazy to get there and it’s baby steps. I admire the way they play and hopefully we have that same type of connected team in the future.”
Beilein, who grew up in western New York, seems to have a longstanding fondness of the Celtics franchise. When attempting to describe how Gordon Hayward is now playing, the coach gave an unusual shout out.
What (Hayward) does really well, even better than that, is stop on a dime. Johnny Most would be very proud of him. You know who Johnny Most is, the old announcer of the Celtics,” Beilein said to the Cleveland media. “(Hayward) just stops on a dime so when he is going downhill he is tough to stop, but when he stops, people just keep going right by him, so that’s it. Brad creates really good leverage for him and he reads screens so well that he can get downhill.
“With the big body and the ability to really handle like a guard, tough matchup for everybody and he’s playing like he did before his injury.”
Hayward’s 39-point eruption against Cleveland, enabled when the Cavaliers chose to stay out on Celtics shooters when he drove into the paint, included some absurd milestones — like the being the first player since Wilt Chamberlain in 1967 to shoot 16-for-16 or better from 2-point range.
According to stat guru Dick Lipe, Hayward was the first Celtic since Larry Bird in 1984 to total 34-plus points, seven-plus assists and 80 percent or better shooting. The last Celtic to score 35 or more points on 85 percent or better shooting was Billy Knight in 1978.
Asked if this is the most complete Hayward has been as a Celtic, Stevens disagreed, saying, “He was really good late in the year last year. That last month prior to the Milwaukee series I thought he was really good.”
That said, Hayward has clearly increased his aggressiveness.
“He was aggressive going to the basket, he did a good job when they were guarding him with big guys, he did a good job when they were guarding him with small guys, he just kept making the right play over and over,” said Stevens. “When they started trapping him, he hit Rob (Williams) for a couple of those dunks, (Daniel) Theis a couple of times. You always felt he could get a bucket because of the way he was reading things today.”