Celtics Failed Test Vs. Hawks (Again) Sparking Pre-Playoff Concern

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When the Celtics surrendered an offensive rebound in 3-on-1 coverage leading to a game-sealing three against the Hawks on Monday night, it was clear Boston needed to turn the page in Atlanta.

But instead, the same red flag that was presented in Boston’s underwhelming 44-point second half, leading to a 120-118 loss, anchored the Celtics for a second consecutive time — again when matching up with a Hawks team that didn’t have All-Star guard Trae Young healthy and available. That’s not promising for a Celtics team with bolder-heavy expectations heading into a playoff run where redemption is Boston’s theme.

Thursday night was a makeup exam and the Celtics crumbled like a croton yet again as they did on the initial test. By halftime, Boston held a measly four-point lead that wasn’t easy to gain or hold. First, it was De’Andre Hunter who charged the Celtics for their lousy urgency on the glass by draining a game-sealing three in regulation. Then Atlanta hit its replay button on Boston and leaned to Dejounte Murry, who buried the game-winner over Jrue Holiday, leaving the Celtics a merciless 0.01 seconds left in overtime.

To make matters worse, while the Hawks (still) didn’t have Young, Boston gained the returns of Holiday and Derrick White. Yet, even with the NBA’s most efficient defensive backcourt, Atlanta still recovered 17 offensive rebounds and sprinkled in 28 second-chance points in a 123-122 Celtics loss, the team’s fourth in six overtime battles this season.

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“They’re a good team,” Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla told reporters, per CLNS Media video. “Like I said, they’re in the list of teams like Utah (Jazz), they’re another team I mentioned. Controlling the shot margin is a tough, tough test because of their ability to shoot threes, their ability to offensive rebound and the variance that they play with.”

Atlanta’s been undergoing a recent surge, shooting 50.5% from the field in its last five games, which ranks fourth in the NBA. However, the Hawks are still a significantly less talented opponent that the Celtics should’ve handled with ease, especially after losing to them most recently in stunning fashion.

Boston clinched the No. 1 seed before any other team in the Eastern Conference clinched a playoff berth, and 11 games before closing up its regular season. If anything, the final stretch should be treated as the most critical in establishing a tone before walking into the playoffs and colliding with a handful of also-hungry conference hopefuls.

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When it came to the Hawks, the Philadelphia 76ers, and especially the Miami Heat, the Celtics had to learn their lesson, the hard way.

Celtics star Jayson Tatum fell short on a game-winning 3-point attempt in regulation. While the 26-year-old is a solid career 45.1% clutch shooter, that percentage has tumbled significantly this season to 14.3% (1-for-7) when attempting a tying or go-ahead shot with less than 10 seconds remaining — which Tatum himself has noticed.

“I know I’ve missed a couple this year, so I was like, ‘Damn, I gotta be due for one,’” Tatum said postgame, per NBC Sports Boston. “I’ve hit a bunch of ’em in my career so far but it’s part of it — make or miss league. I really do enjoy being in those situations.”

Tatum added: “Winning is hard, and we’ve been fortunate enough to do a lot of being on the (winning) side. And it’s just a good reminder you can just never take those for granted. Every single night is gonna be tough.”

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That’s certainly been the case for the still-NBA-best Celtics (57-16) through their two-game nightmare trip to Atlanta.

Boston’s two encouraging limelight’s
While the Celtics failed to lock in and logged a second-straight stunning defeat, two primary signs of encouragement shouldn’t go unnoticed in a game Boston would like to (quickly) make forgettable.

Jaylen Brown initially silenced the State Farm Arena crowd by draining a highly-contested go-ahead jumper over Atlanta’s Wesley Matthews, giving the Celtics a 122-121 lead with 6.2 seconds remaining. It was a deja vu moment for Brown, who just a few nights prior, missed a potential clutch three over Matthews in the fourth quarter.

The same level of difficulty, but a much different result — even though Murray’s career night spoiled it just seconds later.

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“Sometimes I think we have settled or whatever, and we can get to the basket and things like that,” Brown, who finished with 18 points, said postgame, per NBC Sports Boston. “I think we’ll be ready when it’s time to come. We just gotta make sure that we execute and we got our spacing, and we’re not settling. We’re not leaving it to the officiating.”

The returns of Holiday and White to the starting lineup weren’t welcomed with a victory, however, the two remind the Celtics exactly what they were missing on Monday night: defensive intensity and ball pressure.

Holiday and White made Murray uncomfortable in overtime through a physical defensive presence. White was charged with a questionable personal foul on Murray while Holiday guarded a Murray miss two Atlanta possessions later, leaving 16 seconds left in overtime.

“It felt good playing with my dawgs,” Holiday explained, per NBC Sports Boston. “It was cool to be out there, especially in a close game. I know in a lot of games it’s been blowouts or we knew we were gonna win, but these are definitely learning experiences where we come down to the crunch time and make plays and see what we’re made of.”

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Boston also dropped to 5-7 in games decided by three points or fewer.

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