CHARLOTTE — Kemba Walker, slightly nervous about the reception he was going to receive in his return to the Spectrum Center last night, needn’t have worried.
And after the pregame video presentation and standing ovation, and after getting an 0-for-6 first half out of his system, the Celtics guard settled into his great new reality.
Walker’s teammates were as hot as he was initially cold in the Celtics’ 108-87 win over the Hornets, with Gordon Hayward following up Tuesday night’s 39-point performance in Cleveland with 20 more Thursday night to go along with another 22 from Jayson Tatum.
The Celtics thus won their sixth straight game, and maintained their position at the top of the Eastern Conference, also tied with the Lakers for the best record in basketball at 6-1.
Walker righted himself in the second half and finished with 14 points.
Terry Rozier, who like Walker struggled through an 0-for-6 half, had more trouble against his former team, and finished with three points on 1-for-11 shooting.
Tatum and Walker each had three 3-pointers in the third quarter — Tatum’s third with 3.6 seconds left, as the Celtics carried an 85-67 lead into the fourth quarter. Tatum had 22 points, Hayward 20, and the Celtics appeared set to run away.
The Celtics were helped when Miles Bridges was given a technical foul for pushing Marcus Smart out of bounds. The Celtics guard had to be held back by referee Leon Wood as he attempted to get at the Hornets forward. Tatum hit the free throw for a 91-74 lead that Wanamaker boosted with two more free throws with 7:46 left.
Javonte Green followed with a dunk off a Daniel Theis feed for a 95-74 lead, and after Dwayne Bacon hit a trey, a still-angered Smart drove for a three-point play, chattering all the way to the free throw line to ice the game.
For two players facing their former teams, Walker and Rozier appeared to be suffering from the same malady at halftime. Each player was 0-for-6 from the floor.
The Celtics pulled out of the half with a 52-43 lead, dampened at the very end when Graham picked off a Rob Williams outlet pass and hit a 3-pointer with eight seconds left.
Rozier finally broke ice on the first basket of the third quarter, and Walker scored not long after, but in a much more effective setting – a pulverizing 11-1 Celtics run that kicked off on two straight Hayward hoops, and was good for a 63-46 lead.
The Hornets chipped their way back into things again, this time as Smart picked up his fourth and fifth fouls in rapid succession. And cut the Celtics lead to 66-54 on two Graham free throws.
Three-pointers from Tatum and Walker, and after the Hornets ran off three more points, Walker stepped into his third trey of the quarter for a 75-59 lead.
This time his shot triggered an 8-2 run, capped when Robert Williams grabbed an offensive board and passed out to Brad Wanamaker for the trey. Tatum’s third trey of the quarter gave the Celtics a little extra space in an 85-67 lead by the end of the third.
Hayward, the muscle memory from his 39-point performance in Cleveland still fresh, sparked the Celtics on their first run of the night — a 14-2 run for an early 25-13 lead. Hayward, who scored 14 points in his first 10 minutes, had eight points, including six straight, in the run.
The Celtics, buoyed by some easy offense, departed the first with a 30-20 lead.
Brown got into the act with four points early in the second, but the Celtics would soon go cold, and with 6:25 left in the half Miles Bridges cut the Celtics lead to 38-29.
The Hornets chipped away until, with 3:43 left, Bridges dunked to follow up his own 3-pointer, cutting the Celtics lead to 41-37 with 3:43 left in the half.
The Celtics answered with power in the form of an 11-0 run, capped by five straight points from Tatum, and would have been in a better position save for a bad sequence from Robert Williams, whose outlet pass off a defensive board went right to Graham, who buried a 3-pointer that cut the Celtics’ halftime lead to 52-43.