Trae Young got that look in his eye late. Within a possession as 10-point underdogs late on the road, he drilled three free throws and blew to the rim to keep the Hawks within two late. As he lurked dangerously on the ball, bursting inside after missing a three the possession before, Daniel Theis recovered and blocked him seconds before his layup attempt hit glass.
Jaylen Brown ran in transition, where he got fouled and missed both free throws. Alex Len missed one at the line the other way, then Marcus Smart pulled an extremely Smart shot for a four-point lead. De’Andre Hunter stole a pass from him after Len’s tip-in, giving the Hawks last shot down two. Theis went to work again, switching onto Young on the perimeter and rejecting his last-second launch for the win. Boston escaped 109-106, now 16-1 against sub-.500 teams.
Theis scored 14 points on 7-of-12 shooting with 14 points, six rebounds, two assists and rejections that came at the perfect time. He became central to Boston’s offensive game plan too after Atlanta’s roll game gave the C’s early fits.
Daniel Theis with the game winning rejection!!! Marcus Smart then does what Marcus Smart does pic.twitter.com/JGWhD4QmZy— Celtics Nation (@CelticsNationCP) January 4, 2020
Atlanta entered 7-27, yet among the least healthy teams in the NBA to date and originally sporting its full squad. By the end of the third quarter, Jayson Tatum and John Collins collided in mid-air, sending Collins spiraling to the floor onto his back and out of a tie game.
The Hawks reached that point committing heavily to their pick-and-roll attack while the Celtics tried to match with movement that mimicked theirs. Collins began the game setting up Hunter for a jumper, hitting a pair of free throws, catching a lob from Young above the rim and drilling a three above the arc to push a 16-6 lead.
Brown, Tatum and Gordon Hayward struggled immensely while he thrived. The Celtics missed their first six three-point attempts through 11 minutes with their wings missing six of seven, largely around the rim, during Collins’ scorching start. Even a perfect jump ball Smart tipped to Tatum on the run in transition became a botched layup.
This was almost very cool— Dan Greenberg (@StoolGreenie) January 4, 2020
Jayson ♂️ pic.twitter.com/xUStWOBIH7
Theis received a heavy dose of rolls on offense and — per usual — foul calls elevating above the rim on defense. Against a consistently small-ball Hawks approach, the Celtics asserted its center rotation as a rare offensive advantage. What Theis and Enes Kanter built scoring in tandem in the last loss to the 76ers continued — with a combined 28 points and 17 rebounds.
Romeo Langford jumped off the bench first to hit him for a pick-and-pop from the elbow after Theis tipped back another miss inside by Tatum. Despite his finishing issues, Tatum reached double-figure scoring for the 23rd consecutive game.
Kanter entered botching a put-back and missing a free throw as the Celtics fell behind 23-11. With 52 seconds left he finished inside from Brown, adding a free throw for the and-one, and Smart answered a three from Brandon Goodwin to stay within 32-19 after the first quarter. Brown ended the frame launching from outside the paint all the way to the rim.
Brown and turnovers factored into a rapid second-quarter comeback. He opened reaching the free throw line to split a pair and bursting the rim for two. Atlanta faltered offensively as Cam Reddish tossed a pass over the back line and Collins lazily handed-off to Smart intending to feed DeAndre’ Bembry curling behind him, setting up Smart’s transition finish.
The Celtics rotated perfectly defensively to force Bembry into a rhythmless, air-ball three that Brad Wanamaker ran back for an easy layup. Smart drove and kicked to the now-effective Grant Williams corner three and within five minutes the C’s reached within 39-35.
Atlanta started 2-for-9 to allow Boston back and the two sides engaged in a back-and-forth through the midway point of the fourth quarter. Young pushed them ahead again after, making Smart dance around Collins’ screen while he drilled a three above the arc and luring him into hitting his arm with his chin on a successful mid-range pull-up.
Tatum piled up three makes at the free throw line while Hayward hit his first three, but Atlanta paced ahead with triples from Kevin Huerter and Collins. After Collins and Goodwin finishes into halftime, the Celtics built a double-digit advantage in points inside.
Hayward dunked and passed to Theis for an open elbow jumper seconds into the quarter, with a pair of jumpers midway through the frame that built a six-point Boston lead. Young’s spotted-up and topped him with three consecutive three-points. Out of timeout Kanter found Grant inside for a layup and finished his own slam from Smart, rising up to tap the backboard and drawing a T.
He would finish another inside, handing Smart his seventh assist before the end of the third, with Hayward’s three earning Smart his eighth and a C’s lead. His playmaking drove the Celts into the fourth, with another three and find to Kanter on a cut (9) that pushed Boston ahead 105-101 with 3:21 remaining.
Hunter, playing heavy minutes with Collins out late, finished an alley-oop and drilled a three to keep the Hawks around into the final moments. Brown, who scored 24 points and collectively took 20 free throws with Tatum, finished a layup inside and drilled a three that sent the C’s into crunch time with a six-point lead.
Young, with Len’s late surge, chipped into that. Though Theis never let them break it, as the Celtics gritted out another win before a trip to Chicago that could’ve become a bad pair of back-to-back losses even without Kemba Walker.
Boston plays at 8 p.m. tomorrow, with Stevens unconcerned about the extra minutes his starters play.