The Hawks ripped off bucket after bucket, six straight, erasing a nine-point Celtics lead and forcing the game to a deadlock. Still, Brad Stevens held Al Horford, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Terry Rozier in their warm-ups on the bench.
Dewayne Dedmon splashed a three to put the Hawks up 106-104 for a moment, then Jonathan Gibson sunk a two above the free-throw line. Atlanta’s overwhelming offense converted two more shots, and Shane Larkin botched a layup with 16 seconds left that would’ve gotten Boston back within two with 16 seconds left.
Atlanta won the game 112-106.
“I thought we were really connected offensively,” Stevens said of the early effort. “If we’re getting into our bench, we need some of them to be good in the playoffs.”
Tatum had stood in unfamiliar territory during Friday’s win, standing in a suit applauding Jabari Bird, Gibson and the other players pulled deep from Boston’s bench to generate the points the Celtics needed to beat the Bulls. It was the first time, after 78 straight games played, that Tatum got a breather in his rookie season.
As the veterans, including Marcus Morris on Sunday, take late-season games off, the magnifying glass continues to hone in on Brown and Tatum, young prospects compelled to provide the brunt of Boston’s scoring this postseason.
Tatum wasted no time Sunday. His steal, tip-in, mid-range jumper and acrobatic layup through traffic and a foul down low generated seven of the Celtics’ first 11 points.
On the right baseline, Brown jabbed, then poured in a bucket over Taurean Prince’s head. The roster’s youth set the table, but Al Horford soon assumed the glue role, leading a 50-percent shooting, 58-point scoring team effort. The Celtics assisted on 33 of 42 makes Sunday.
Their defense rotated, disrupted and jammed the Hawks inside on three straight tries to open the game against Aron Baynes. Atlanta opened shooting 3 of 11, with three turnovers, the last of which Horford heaved to Tatum over half court. Tatum nearly lost it, but he reset and smoothly led Brown to the basket for a three-point play.
Horford and Rozier buried threes, but their attempt at resurrecting the two-man game that Kyrie Irving and Horford once commanded yielded mixed results. Rozier got trapped on the left baseline trying to free up Horford on the right wing, and his cross-court pass got picked off by Prince and turned into two easy points.
Mike Muscala drew the Hawks within 27-20, keeping a possession alive on the boards then tipping in a miss. Then, Shane Larkin entered and reaffirmed Boston’s offensive activity. He and Greg Monroe exchanged the ball twice on a give-and-go, opening up the interior for two straight makes by Moose. They led 31-24 after one, and Brown and Tatum both posted seven points.
Monroe and Larkin continued to man playmaking duties into the second. The latter broke into the rim on hard drives. One one play, he finished through three defenders in the vicinity and then unloaded through contact to Bird on the back line, leading to a reverse layup.
DeAndre’ Bembry tried to apply pressure to Larkin in the back court, speeding up the offense and forcing Tatum’s second miss in six attempts. Atlanta opened up a five point push, but Bird ripped the momentum back by throwing down Horford’s missed three on a put-back slam. Boston led 47-41.
Then Horford closed, flushing a pick-and-pop from Rozier, draining two free throws and nailing a three to finish the half with 14 points, five rebounds and two assists. It was his seventh straight game scoring double-figures.
The Cs led by nine entering the fourth, but their advantage dwindled all the way to one just 10 minutes later as Atlanta pushed a 26-20 run.
Tatum dunked and swished a three through a five-minute scoring drought by his teammates, while Dedmon and Prince produced a pair of threes. Prince broke the game open with 3:26 to play, tossing John Collins a feed for a dunk, then stealing Rozier’s pass and running past Tatum, who fouled him in the open court.
The refs granted Prince the clear path, thus giving the Hawks two free throws and a possession. On that possession, Prince sank a three to pull the Hawks within one point.
Rozier redeemed his mistake with a three and fadeaway two before he heaved a full-court pass to Tatum for a running dunk that placed the Celts back up 82-76 at the buzzer.
Semi Ojeleye and Monroe opened the fourth with with four straight makes, before combination of two Abdel Nader steals and turnovers bounced back to Dedmon, who finished through Monroe.
Then Atlanta opened an onslaught of offense midway through the frame. Damion Lee and Bembry hit a pair of layups, and Prince reached the 30-point plateau behind a trio of pull-ups (two from three-point range) that Muscala followed with a three-and-foul of his own.
Muscala swished his free throw, earned by Ojeleye’s bump, and tied the game at 99. Boston would only muster seven points from then on, as Atlanta pushed one more 7-0 run to the finish line and downed Boston by six at the Garden.