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Boston Celtics take 3-1 series lead on Atlanta Hawks, win 129-121

The Celtics turned in a strong effort from start to finish and are now on the brink of the second round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Atlanta Hawks Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Denied a chance to take a near-impenetrable 3-0 series lead on Friday night, the Boston Celtics took the court in Atlanta this evening with a second chance to put the Hawks on the ropes. This time, they followed through. Fending off a plucky Hawks effort at every turn, the Celtics delivered a strong effort from start to finish, and earned a formidable 3-1 lead in the first round series.

This was a balanced performance from the Celtics, with six players scoring in double figures. Leading the way was Jaylen Brown, who looked rejuvenated after discarding his protective mask partway through the night, scoring 31 points. Jayson Tatum added 31 points of his own, but struggled with efficiency, shooting just 4-of-13 from three-point range. The Boston guard rotation was effective once again, as Marcus Smart, Derrick White and Malcolm Brogdon combined for 51 points and eight three-pointers,

For the Hawks, De’Andre Hunter had a remarkable night, scoring 27 points. After a huge Game 3 performance, Trae Young once again struggled tonight, scoring 35 points and dishing 15 assists, but shooting just 11-of-26 from the field and finding several of his buckets in garbage time when the Hawks no longer had a chance. The big man rotation of Clint Capela and Onyeka Okongwu made an impact on the offensive glass, grabbing six offensive rebounds.

The Hawks’ offense had their way with the Celtics in Game 3, aided by a lackluster effort from the Boston defense. Tonight, tightening up that effort was a focal point from the get-go. The held Atlanta to just 36% shooting from the field in the opening frame, while their offense continued to cook as it has all series long. The Celtics drilled five threes and assisted on half their made buckets in the first quarter, taking a 35-25 lead into the second.

The Boston offense slowed in the second quarter, blowing some wind into Atlanta’s sails. After trading buckets for much of the quarter, the Hawks went on a 9-0 run in the closing minutes that allowed them to pull back within four points of the Celtics’ lead. A three-point play from Robert Williams III — part of a 8-point, 12-rebound first half for the young center — helped restore order, and the Celtics tightened their grip on the reins as the clock ticked down. They entered the half with a 12-point lead, 65-53.

After a relatively quiet outing — at least by his recent, lofty standards — on Friday in Game 3, White not only bounced back tonight, but looked like the best player on the court in the first half. His 15 first half points led the Celtics, and they needed every point as Tatum and Brown got off to relatively quiet starts. Boston’s has gone as White has for this entire series, and the strong start was an encouraging sign this evening.

The Hawks pulled the lead back within reach behind an 8-2 run to kick off the second half, but the Celtics quickly responded. For much of the third quarter, the game hit a breakneck pace, with both teams seeming to amp up their pace. Near the midway point of the quarter, Young grabbed Tatum’s arm on the way to the rim, making no attempt to make a play on the ball. The officiating crew reviewed the sequence, and after a brief video review, upgraded the call to a Flagrant 1 for a pull-down by Young, putting Tatum to the line.

The lead hovered just under the double-digit threshold for much of the third quarter, with the Hawks winning the minutes slightly, but making no great inroads towards flipping the lead. Having finally shed the protective mask that, at the request of his mother, he had worn for weeks after having been cleared, Brown righted the ship in the third, scoring nine points. The Hawks won the quarter, however, and trailed by five points entering the final frame, 92-87.

As the fourth quarter began, the Hawks continued to threaten the Boston lead. The Celtics struggled to keep them at arm’s length in the early minutes, though the Hawks weren’t able to pull closer than four points. Midway through the quarter, a timely three from Tatum and a heady put-back from Brown helped reestablish control for the Celtics, restoring a 10-point edge with just under seven minutes remaining in regulation.

Atlanta’s Bogdan Bogdanovic fouled out of the game with just under six minutes remaining in regulation, with the Celtics leading by eight points, 108-100. The Hawks put the Celtics on the line again on the ensuing possession, with Tatum converting on one of two free throws before the Boston defense gave up a layup to Young on the other end. A few back-and-forth possessions later — including a pair of layups from Williams III, his best game of the series thus far — the Celtics found themselves ahead 113-106 with three minutes remaining in regulation.

Tatum dominated the next few possessions, forcing his way to the free throw line for a pair of freebies before connecting on a very deep pull-up three to put the Celtics ahead by 9 with two minutes left. Young responded with a deep three of his own on the next possession, but with 1:21 on the clock, Brown hit the dagger — a three-pointer that put the Celtics ahead 121-109. The Hawks found a couple quick buckets, but it was far from enough to make this game close, and the Celtics earned themselves a 3-1 series lead.

Next up, the series returns home to Boston for Game 5 as the Celtics look to close out the Hawks on their home court this Tuesday at 7:30 PM EST on TNT.

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