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Boston’s defense locks in late and 9 other takeaways from Celtics/Hawks

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The Celtics shut down the Hawks in the fourth quarter to win their third straight game

NBA: Boston Celtics at Atlanta Hawks Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

1. The Celtics defense was awful early. The Hawks have been improving and scoring the ball well, but Boston did little to impede them to start this game. In particular, it looked like the Celtics have never defended a pick and roll before. Atlanta chewed up the Boston defense for easy baskets like this one, on their way to 36 first quarter points:

2. When the Celtics weren’t getting beat by pick and rolls, they were struggling to contain shooters or drivers. A big part of the reason was that Boston’s ball pressure wasn’t there to start the game. Mike Gorman said on the broadcast a couple of times in the first half “Atlanta is getting whatever shots they want right now” and it was true. More on it later, but when the Celtics picked up the ball pressure, the entire game turned around.

3. With Gordon Hayward out due to personal reasons (Congrats on the new arrival Hayward family!), Brad Stevens’ rotation was thrown out of whack. He’s found the nine guys he wants to play. Because Hayward was out, and because of the bad play early, Stevens was searching a little. 11 players played in the first half and, once again, the reserves helped turn the game around for Boston.

4. It was another strong game for Jaylen Brown off the bench. His defense was great. He was one of the players who picked up the ball pressure, and then he also made a bunch of plays as a help defender. On offense, Brown shot just 3-of-10, but he was on the attack most of the game. The best part? He hit 6-of-8 from the free throw line. All too often, Brown leaves points at the line. Tonight he made the most of his freebies.

5. It’s probably fair to think the Celtics say thanks for Kyrie Irving on a fairly regular basis, but this first half was a prime example of what he means to them. He scored 23 of his 32 points in the first half, helping to keep Boston in the game. Shots like this one, where he finishes with his left hand in traffic, are becoming commonplace from Irving:

6. Midway through the third quarter, Marcus Smart was ejected from the game. Smart picked up back-to-back fouls early in the third on questionable (read: bad) calls. He searched out a technical from Scott Foster and got one, rightly so. Then a few minutes later, Smart and DeAndre’ Bembry were jostling for position on a jump ball and talking. Phenizee Ransom, who is in his first full year as an NBA official, overreacted. He called a double-technical on Smart and Bembry, which resulted in Smart’s ejection. Then chaos ensued. Bembry kept talking to Smart, who at this point was beyond hot. Smart then charged Bembry, before his teammates and Celtics staffers held him back.

While the incident seemed to fire up Boston, it was unnecessary and avoidable. Bad calls happen and Smart needs to keep his head. He let Foster know and Foster tagged him with a T. That’s a pretty regular occurrence, and all parties move on. But the young official escalated things by trying to control a situation that didn’t need controlled. The double-technical is a cop-out in that situation, and it caused Smart to lose his cool.

Smart charging after Bembry was, quite simply, stupid. He has to be better than that. He got ejected and should have left the court. Smart has a fine coming and, because he charged an opposing player, he may have a one-game suspension coming too. All because poor officiating led to more poor officiating.

7. It was good to see Jayson Tatum getting his offense going again. He scored 19 points on 7-of-13 from the floor. This shot is an example of Tatum understanding he has a mismatch on a smaller player and that no help is coming. He slowly works to his spot, and buries the turnaround. This was shades of Paul Pierce working against smaller guard in the mid-post area:

8. We said above that reserves sparked the Celtics, led by Jaylen Brown. But Terry Rozier played another strong game. He had nine points, 11 rebounds, four assists and played great defense in the second half. On this play, Brown and Rozier teamed up for a big basket early in the fourth quarter. Brown drives, stays patient (instead of forcing a contested layup), and finds Rozier for the triple:

9. While the Hawks got whatever they wanted for offense in the first half, Boston shut them down completely in the fourth quarter. Atlanta scored 16 points on just 6-of-20 shooting, including 1-of-11 from behind the arc. In addition, they threw it away five times. The Celtics locked in on defense, pressured the ball and made life miserable for the Hawks. This included a 4:50 stretch where Atlanta stayed stuck on 100 points, as Boston took control of the game.

10. There’s been a lot of talk about leadership from the Celtics lately. Al Horford demonstrated it last night on the court, late in the game. Boston had control after a layup put the Celtics up 111-102 in 46 seconds left. But the Celtics didn’t get back on defense, outside of Horford, which led to a foul. Horford immediately let his teammates know about it, as the broadcast picked him up saying “You HAVE to run back. This isn’t over. You HAVE to run back on defense.” That’s in-game, in-the-moment leadership by Boston’s veteran leader.