Celtics’ search for answers continues against Mavericks

Boston found just what it needed in a visit to reeling Atlanta on Friday night.

Dallas, the next stop on a back-to-back set, promises to provide a greater challenge.

The Celtics had lost seven of 10 games before drubbing the Hawks 114-96, using a 45-point first quarter to begin the rout.

The victory provided a momentarily reprieve from questions about early struggles.

“We’ve still got a lot of room for improvement, but it’s better to learn when you win than it is to learn when you lose,” Celtics forward Aron Baynes told reporters after scoring a season-high 16 points.

“You know, we have had a pretty big dry spell. We have gotten good looks but (shots) haven’t been dropping, so to see it go through the hoop a few times tonight to begin the game was a good thing.”

Dallas has found nothing but answers in its recent play, winning five of six. It will bring a five-game home winning steak into Sunday’s game.

Preseason Eastern Conference favorite Boston has had a rougher ride than expected through the first month.

The Celtics were booed in the Garden when they fell behind by 26 in the second quarter of a 117-109 loss to New York on Wednesday, extending their losing streak to a season-long three games and causing coach Brad Stevens to say, “I just don’t know that we’re that good.”

Reserve guard Marcus Smart was more pointed.

“We’re playing like punks, that’s just what it is,” Smart told the Boston Herald after the game against the Knicks.

“It’s not everybody. You’re got guys out there who are playing and playing hard. That’s some. But we don’t have all five guys at the same time. So teams are going to continue to whip us.”

Recent history indicates the Celtics’ skid could be a temporary condition. After adding Al Horford two seasons ago, the Celtics began the season 13-12 after a three-game losing streak but finished with 53 victories.

“You know, it’s not guaranteed that you’re going to be able to turn it around, though,” Stevens told reporters.

“The reality is you have to grind it out, you have to work, and you have to be able to weather all this other stuff that’s going on with it. I heard (76ers coach) Brett Brown say this earlier in the year … the storm is part of the job. I’m looking forward to getting a chance to really dig in, and hopefully we can weather it.”

Kyrie Irving is averaging 24.6 points and 6.4 assists per game and shooting 48.7 percent from the floor, but he is the only starter shooting above 43 percent.

The Celtics are shooting 43.4 percent and are being outrebounded by almost two per game.

“In order to be considered a special team, you have to earn it,” Irving said.

Horford missed the game against the Hawks with a sore left knee, and he is questionable for the game against Dallas.

The Mavericks have turned things around after a slow start, holding opponents to double figures in scoring in four of the last six games.

Harrison Barnes scored a season-high 28 points when the Mavericks held off the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday, and they are 3-0 when Barnes scores 20-plus points.

“In games like this, he has to be very aggressive,” Dallas coach Rick Carlisle told reporters.

“He has to be an offensive force down the stretch. He was making really good things happen. Even on the shots he didn’t necessarily hit he was creating shots and a couple of them we were able to get offensive rebounds on. That is what top-line players are supposed to do.”

Reserve Devin Harris scored eight straight points to break a tie early in the fourth quarter against the Nets and had a season-high 18 points in 18 minutes.

Luka Doncic continued to fill the box score for the Mavs — 21 points, nine rebounds, four assists and two steals. He has scored at least 20 nine points in nine of his first 17 games.

Harris missed 10 games became of a left hamstring strain, and his return has made a strong Dallas bench even stronger. Mavs reserves had 49 points Wednesday, with guard J.J. Barea joining Harris with 18 points. Barea also had seven assists.

Barea, who missed the previous two games with a left adductor strain, has scored in double figures in six straight, averaging 15.2 points while shooting 53.8 percent.

“We kind of feed off one another,” Harris said of Barea. “That’s my running mate out there. We see things that pairs normally don’t see. I’m glad I can still run with him at this age and it’s fun playing with him.”

Barea’s contributions were welcome inasmuch as starting point guard Dennis Smith Jr. has been hampered by a sprained right wrist. Smith played only 19 minutes against the Nets, two in the second half, and took only three shots.

“He is such a tough kid and he wanted to be out there for his team, so we let him,” Carlisle said.

Smith’s availability for the game against the Celtics is unclear.