ATLANTA — Al Horford navigated screens all game. He dealt with Trae Young, he dropped below the guard’s devastating floaters and watched him step around screens into threes. Early on — he needed to sit after Atlanta attacked him back door.
Horford stayed in the game after that. For 30 minutes. Through early misses from deep. Through the Hawks’ attempts to play him off the court by repeatedly attacking him on defense.
Horford slipped after his third block, toward the baseline as the Celtics ran in transition midway through the fourth quarter. He stumbled, but got up to watch Jaylen Brown running in transition for a go-ahead basket. Horford delivered his own four minutes later in the corner, his second straight after missing a pair in the first half. He pointed toward Atlanta’s bench, returning the favor for Murray’s Game 3 taunt.
The Celtics veteran and former Hawk sparked a five-point Jayson Tatum run capped by his high-rising put back slam following Horford’s ensuing three-point miss. Boston soon clinched the game and series, 128-120, as Horford posted 10 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, two steals and three blocks.
The Celtics shot ahead 12-2 on a string of Marcus Smart plays, a feed to Jaylen Brown that fired up his 4-for-6 start from deep, a follow on his own miss inside that created free throws and sent Horford downhill for a rolling dunk.
Tatum slammed an early two-hander over De’Andre Hunter while Smart added a three and layup of his own. The Hawks soon took Horford out of the game in foul trouble, Young and John Collins attacking him at the rim sending two early fouls. Boston fell out of its preferred style, which they later rediscovered through Tatum’s second half playmaking.
Young’s three as Smart slid under Clint Capela’s screen sparked a 24-15 Hawks turnaround, scoring on 10 out of 14 possessions late in the first quarter and grabbing three offensive rebounds in a row at the end of the run. After the Hawks targeted Sam Hauser and drew Robert Williams III out of the paint to set up those follows, Mazzulla inserted Grant Williams for a brief stint at center, who Young shook with a step-back for another three and a first quarter win, like in Game 5 at the Garden.
Brown and Derrick White hit tough spinning shots in the post to push Boston back ahead into the second quarter, but as threes fell for them at over a 50% rate, Atlanta’s offensive rebounding, steals and free throw shooting narrowed Boston’s margin for error. Brown tried to cut off a pass to Onyeka Okongwu in the post and fell, giving him an easy two. Atlanta sealed White with Okongwu on the next play for two more and drew Williams III on a switch to the wing that Bogdan Bogdanovic blew right by to score against no help inside. White missed a layup in traffic that drew Mazzulla, Smart and Grant to Mark Davis at mid-court, frustrations mounting enough to force Aaron Miles and Blake Griffin to pull Grant away.
Tatum answered the 11-4 Hawks run with a step-back three, then his run-out following Horford’s long outlet pass secured a small lead Atlanta quickly released. Young pulled up off-balance from the wing and buried a three as he stumbled back toward the crowd after he fed Collins to build a seven-point lead. Brown hit a bailout three after Brogdon clipped the front of the rim, Tatum failing to gain leverage against Hunter’s sturdy defense to start the possession. Brown added a pull-up three and catch-and-shoot look into the half court from Horford, and the Celtics took a four-point lead on a 13-2 run, Brown hitting 4-of-5 to close the half.
Dejounte Murray took nearly 2.5 quarters to find his first points in the lane after an 0-for-5 start and powered a needed run in the third. After the Celtics picked on Young and Smart hit a trio of free throws, Murray scored inside, drove downhill and found Hunter open in the corner away from White’s double team on Young and scored a three-point play in transition after Tatum hit a pair of free throws. Smart, Tatum, Malcolm Brogdon and Horford tied the game with one of the few multi-pass possessions all half. Tatum found Horford again before dribbling out of a double team to score past Okongwu and kicking to Grant for a go-ahead three late in the third.
That four-point lead disappeared, as many did in the game, into the fourth after Tatum missed back-to-back threes allowing two Hawks baskets inside. Brogdon went to his floater, taking a 104-102 lead back, before Okonwgu twice blocked Brown inside, who stayed persistent and scored to tie the game at 106. Horford swatted away a Young pass and sent Brown out on the break for two more, Brown adding a three, before Horford hit a go-ahead three in the corner and pointing to the crowd. He doubled Collins in the post, losing the jump ball, but allowing Young to get an open look from the right wing at a tie game.
The ball rattled out and Tatum stepped back into a three to finally give himself and the Celtics breathing room. Brown blocked Murray inside, setting up another Horford three attempt that Tatum flushed back with two hands. Smart deflected two more Hawks comeback attempts, Murray and Hunter hitting threes, with a pull-up triple of his own as Grant, Horford, Tatum and Brown bounced to the bench in front of the raucous crowd.
The Celtics will host the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 1 of the east semifinals on Monday.