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Celtics continue rebirth in the new year, down Hawks in 107-98 comeback win

It wasn’t pretty, but the win gave Boston their 14th out of the team’s last 17 games. That’s... pretty good.

Atlanta Hawks v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

This morning, ESPN published a piece by Kirk Goldsberry titled, “How the Boston Celtics vaulted back into championship contention with the NBA’s best defense.” Upon reading the headline alone, I immediately thought of the 1998 rom-com How Stella Got Her Groove Back, a classic in the genre’s pantheon that chronicles a 40-year-old woman’s self-reflection whilst on a tropical vacation on which she enjoys a torrid affair with a man named Winston Shakespeare. Really, this has nothing to do with the Boston Celtics; the title just felt fitting.

That’s because the Celtics have, indeed, got their groove back. In a big way. Goldsberry’s piece assessed the team’s defensive ferocity since the New Year. “Since hitting their low point in early January, the Celtics have a defensive efficiency of 101.5 — and that’s after giving up 128 points to the Pacers on Sunday,” he wrote. “To put in perspective how much better Boston has been than the rest of the league, that difference of 5.6 points is roughly the same as the difference between the second-place Heat and the 18th-place Utah Jazz.

“The 2021-22 Celtics are playing less like the ‘86 Celtics and more like the ‘85 Chicago Bears. This defense has been off the charts in a good way.”

Well... that didn’t exactly speak anything positive into existence as it pertained to the Celtics’ defense tonight, as they allowed more first-half points than they have since December 17 against the Warriors (68). But in the second half, Boston put together a defensive effort that felt far more characteristic to their abilities of late, decidedly fitting the mold of a team that very much appears to have got their groove back. The Celtics were able to squeak out a win — 107-98 — in perhaps the ugliest fashion they have in this calendar year. They allowed the Hawks to do whatever they wanted on offense, and it felt like they couldn’t make a shot for three-and-a-half quarters. And yet... perhaps the computers are right?

Within the first four minutes, the Celtics had tallied four blocks — more than they had over the course of their entire win over the Brooklyn Nets in the team’s first game back from the All-Star break. And within those same four minutes, the Hawks had scored exactly — calculating — zero points. But within a few more minutes, the Hawks had gotten on the board and then some. They outscored the Celtics 14-5 once they tied the game at 14, and led 28-19 entering the second.

Other updates from the first quarter: Jaylen Brown appeared to roll his ankle, or maybe injure his knee, but no specifics have been reported. Nevertheless, he exited the game and walked to the locker room under his own power, but it was later announced that he would not return. And Trae Young, the Hawks’ star and primary scoring threat, injured his ankle due to landing on Marcus Smart’s foot after attempting a three. He also headed to the locker room, but it was later announced by the team that he’d be available to return (which he soon did).

It didn’t get much better in the second quarter. At least not until the end, when the Celtics finally showed some life, cutting a 17-point lead to a 12-point one with under two minutes left in the period. Marcus Smart seemed to find his stroke on top of his hustle. Derrick White took on an advanced role in JB’s absence, attempting more shots if not draining them all. But by the first half’s end, the Hawks had a 65-51 lead and momentum in full. Trae Young had 22 points, three assists, and one sprained ankle in two quarters; the Celtics were buoyed by Jayson Tatum, whose 17 points essentially kept Boston from garnering an even deeper deficit.

His performance — and his team’s — to start the third ensured that Boston could remain in the game for longer than a minute. The Celtics’ 14-nothing run in under three minutes to begin the second half saw them tie the game at 65; they failed to keep up that defensive effort that has vaulted them into conversations about the league’s current contenders, but they showed shades of resiliency, the kind that teams require to make deep runs in the postseason. It was alarming, and it was promising. Both things can be true at the same time.

Despite the fact that Boston doubled Atlanta’s made field goals in the third, things remained tight: the Celtics held an 82-78 advantage through three quarters, outscoring the visitors 31-13 in the frame. Tatum and Young continued to pace their squads, scoring 28 and 27 apiece through three, respectively. It was a delayed response from the Celtics, but a welcome one. Better yet, it was a game-changing one.

To begin the fourth, Boston jumped out to a seven-point lead, their largest of the night. They quickly pushed it to eight, then 11, then 14. The Celtics moved the ball swiftly, with accuracy and purpose unlike the team we saw on a nightly basis earlier in the season, and scored with just as much intensity.

At a certain point in the fourth, the home team had a 51-23 advantage since halftime over the Hawks. They continued to push ahead until the final buzzer sounded, ultimately maintaining a 56-33 edge in the second half over the Hawks. More often this season have the Celtics surrendered a commanding league than they have overcome one. They’ve changed the script on defense. Perhaps they’ve done so overall.

With this 107-98 win, the Celtics have now gone 8-2 in their last 10 games, and continue to assert themselves as one of the league’s most threatening teams at the moment. Does that continue? Their consistency over the course of the last two months has been astounding, so most, if not all signs point to yes. They hope to continue this impressive stretch against a formidable opponent, the Memphis Grizzlies, Thursday at 7:30 ET on TNT. Good luck, Ja. Hopefully, I didn’t just jinx it.