The Boston Celtics passed the win total from last season (hitting 54 with Friday’s win over the Bulls) despite a plethora of injuries and a guarantee for the East’s No. 2 seed. So what’s left? Three games, including this afternoon’s tilt vs. the Atlanta Hawks.
It was a considerably more competitive affair than one would’ve expected, even with the Celtics leading until the final frame, when the Hawks pounced on a Cs offensive drought to cement a last-second lead and steal a 112-106 win. (The Cs ultimately didn’t lose much more than pride, but still.)
THE GAME FLOW
The freedom of having nothing to lose allows one to adopt the fatalistic attitude necessary to do surprising things. This is why trap games exist, because it’s not always easy to tell when a team with a horrible record will play hard for the sake of rookie/sophomore development, or when the coach lets rookies and sophomores play precisely because they will f*** up. The Hawks often lean toward the former approach, hence their wins against full-strength playoff teams like the Washington Wizards and Utah Jazz.
Fortunately for fans’ viewing experience on this Sunday matinee, the Celtics were inclined to try, perhaps only because guys like Shane Larkin and Jaylen Brown had been ill or injured not long ago and wanted to shake rust off. Jayson Tatum, who’d rested during Friday’s game against the Bulls, seemed eager here early on, getting seven quick points during the first quarter through finesse-heavy drives and that pull-up long two he can often hit in his sleep. Jaylen, Al Horford and Terry Rozier supplemented Tatum’s offensive effort, and from the bench, Greg Monroe and the acrobatically athletic Jabari Bird also did their part.
For their part, the Hawks were definitely trying, and players like Damion Lee, De’Andre Bembry and especially Taurean Prince—who ATL has to consider part of its understandably uncertain future, or that front office is higher than Sly Stone wants to take us—showed real quality. (Utility big man John Collins, a summer league sensation and early-season strong performer, was oddly tentative and lost during the first half.)
Defensively, Boston could’ve been better considering the low level of their competition; they allowed approximately 48 percent shooting from a team comprised largely of G-League call-ups. (We call that “not great” in the business, folks.) There was nevertheless zero question of which team was in control when halftime came, with the Cs ahead 58-49.
The margin of separation keeping Boston in the lead remained about the same for the first half of the third quarter. Atlanta did complete a number of quality possessions that looked like they could’ve been the beginning of runs, mostly plays ending in buckets for Prince. But none of the other Hawks except Collins made it into double figures with 75 percent of the third quarter in the books.
At 3:27 in Q3, a Rozier turnover and a subsequent clear path foul on Prince by Tatum gave the Hawks the juice they’d needed to narrow their deficit from the variable range of 8 through 11 it occupied for much of the game. ATL’s bench, who’d been atrocious, stepped up to take advantage of more Boston turnovers and discombobulation to come as close as one point away from the Cs on the scoreboard.
Rozier and Monroe fought back to keep it more in the three- to five-point margin range. Immediately after, Jaylen had a devastating block of ATL guard Tyler Dorsey. Then Tatum turned a steal off of Prince into a fastbreak back-and-forth with Rozier ending in a Hawks-demoralizing Tatum dunk. The Celtics didn’t end the quarter leading by a ton—82-76—but repositioning themselves as aggressor made it less likely that the Hawks would think of this a game they could steal. Whether they thought it was or not, well, it ended up falling into their laps, but we’ll get to that.
Boston looked like they had no desire for a grindy fourth quarter of attrition offense. They retained their aggression from go for about half the quarter. Monroe barreled into the cup for a layup 20 seconds after the frame began, and their pace and intensity remained. Semi Ojeleye, who had looked perfectly confident earlier when nailing a corner three, supplied more threes and also drive-based offense, entering double figures for just the second time in his career.
Whether Boston wanted this to be some back-and-forth crap of a quarter or not, Atlanta definitely did. Prince turned on the jets and kept scoring but also showed notable basketball IQ signs and found wide-open bench dudes for threes. And suddenly the game was tied. Knotted at 101 with 3:35 left.
The Celtics reserves, Ojeleye aside, essentially forgot how to shoot. This threw everything to s**t and the Hawks struck with the opportunity right in front of them, making nearly every shot they took. I mean, credit where due: Boston faltered and couldn’t recover from it, so ATL handed them the L.
HOT ISH: Tatum, Ojeleye, Brown and Moose all played well.
NOT QUITE IT: I know why Brad Stevens kept the starters out of the fourth quarter’s final minutes—he wanted, in classic process-over-results style, to present the reserves with a problem and have them solve it for themselves. But it sucked to watch the bench offense disintegrate into jelly. Hopefully at least Brother Brad now knows he can’t play Abdel Nader in the playoffs under any circumstances beyond garbage time.
The outstanding Rozier/Tatum cross-court play:
JAYLEN AIN’T HAVING THAT WEAK STUFF:
PUTBACK SLAM FROM THE #BIRDGANG