With a chance to close out the series on their home floor, the Boston Celtics threw away Game 5 after three quarters of quality play. A fourth-quarter collapse saw the Atlanta Hawks earn a chance to play another game at State Farm Arena.
They got that opportunity on Thursday night. A win would force the Celtics into a win-or-go-home scenario — a situation few predicted they would be in before the start of the series.
Through three quarters, the game was close again, and Boston headed into the final frame just one game after their monumental collapse. So, how’d it go?
“Definitely different from Game 5,” said head coach Joe Mazzulla.
Rather than playing well and collapsing, the Celtics did the opposite. They struggled to fend off Atlanta on either end, but when it came down to crunch time, they stepped up to the plate.
In the final five minutes of Game 6, Boston took over.
“Just understanding it was time,” Jayson Tatum said of the last few minutes. “It was a back-and-forth game. They were hitting big shots. We were hitting big shots. We could feel it. Everybody was locked in. Getting blocks. Chasing down rebounds. Hitting big shots. We’ve been in that situation before as a unit. Just finding a way. Finding a way to win. Making plays.”
With 5:01 remaining, the Celtics were down by three points. Both teams had been trading baskets for most of the night, and the game reeked of a late-game classic. It felt as though a game-winner was imminent.
And then the Celtics turned up the heat.
Boston ripped off an 11-0 run. The score went from 110-113 to 121-113 in the span of three minutes. Big play after big play, just a couple of days after their epic meltdown, the Celtics simply refused to lose.
“I thought our guys did a great job at the end of just locking in,” said Mazzulla. “They wanted to win. They kept the momentum, the energy, the edge of the game, and they executed.”
During that span, almost everyone on the court had at least one shining moment.
For Tatum, it was a big-time three, a jaw-dropping putback slam, and a block on the other end. For Brown, it was a deep three and an incredible block above the rim. For Smart, it was a wide-open dagger three and a fake-out layup.
And for Horford, it was a little bit of everything.
He had been struggling all night. Missing open threes that he regularly makes and getting blown by on defense by Trae Young. But in the final few minutes, he was everything.
Not only did he stop the Hawks multiple times in transition, leading to Boston buckets on the other end, but he also hit an ice-cold three.
Atlanta fans were chirping at him on the sidelines before he hit the shot, but that only fueled the fire.
“Some people you can talk trash to,” said Horford. “You talk trash to me, it’s probably not good for you.”
In Game 5, Boston chose to slow it down. They attempted to whittle down the clock and attempt to preserve their lead rather than protect it. By the end of the contest, Atlanta had battled back, and Boston was sluggish.
Fast forward two nights and the Celtics learned from their mistakes. Mazzulla could be seen frantically urging them to pick up the tempo on the sidelines.
“I think it was just our pace on the offensive end,” Mazzulla said of their late-game issues in Game 5. “I thought last game, because of me and my play calling, we played slow. I thought this game, I kind of learned from that, and then they were very proactive.”
The Celtics team that showed up in the final few minutes of Game 6 was a different squad than the one that choked Game 5 and fumbled through the first half of Thursday night’s contest.
That version of the Celtics was on the brink of a first-round exit. This version of the Celtics is the one many predicted to bring home the Larry O’Brien trophy.
“Just winning time, I guess,” said Brown. “Adrenaline. Just that will, that perseverance to finish the game. It was close. Both teams exchanged blows. We were both tired. And we didn’t want to be the team going back home with an L, so we just found a way to win.”
Atlanta proved to be a much more worthy opponent than many Celtics fans anticipated. The bulk of predictions had Boston winning in four games or, at the very least, a gentleman’s sweep. But they pushed Boston.
“In the playoffs, you got basketball, you got execution, and then you got this fight that’s going on,” Brown explained. “And Atlanta, they might not have had all of the Xs and Os, but they fought. They fought us. They offensive rebounded. They played hard. The effort, they use their athleticism, they didn’t back down from no challenges.”
But instead of pushing back, Boston faltered in Game 5. They played down to their competition, and that’s not the mentality of a champion.
They fixed that problem by the end of Game 6.
“That’s where we needed to step up–the fight of the game,” said Brown.