BOSTON — The Celtics blew a golden opportunity in Game 5 at TD Garden Tuesday night, losing to the undermanned Atlanta Hawks; they squandered a 12-point lead in the final five and a half minutes as Boston’s regular-season flaws reared their ugly head for Trae Young and the Hawks to thrive in.
The Celtics haven’t learned from their past mistakes. It’s evident in their lackadaisical attempt to close out their first best-of-7 series since winning last year’s Eastern Conference finals, involving poor shot selection, no ball movement, and defensive lapses, including ample space for Young’s 30-foot game-winning 3-pointer that sealed a 119-117 win to avoid elimination.
Stagnant possessions turned into hero ball between Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum; they finished the final stretch 0-for-3 from the floor with two turnovers. And when desperation set in for the Celtics — clinging onto a 115-114 advantage at the time — Marcus Smart’s lapse in judgment of possibly forgetting Boston had zero fouls to give led to him attempting to steal the ball from Trae. Instead, he sent the Hawks star to the free-throw line with 15.8 seconds left, and Young made both.
Derrick White responded with his clutch free throws on the opposite end. Then, Young’s eyes lit up before nailing a dagger 3 with 2.1 seconds left on the clock.
“Jaylen was backing up pretty hard,” Young said about his defender on the Hawks’ final possession. “I think he was expecting me to try to go by him and get to the basket to get a layup or a floater or try to draw a foul. I just had to trust in what I’ve done my whole life and shoot with confidence.”
Trae finished with a game-high 38 points, 13 assists. His production also made up for the absence of teammate Dejounte Murray, who was suspended for making physical contact with an official at the end of Game 4. Still, the Celtics were supposed to win this game, complete their first-round series 4-1 and prepare for Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers in round two. For 42 minutes, Boston was in control.
Brown led with a team-high 35 points on 15-of-23 attempts, including 4-of-7 from deep with seven rebounds and five assists but lost his focus when the Hawks went on their run in the latter half of the final frame, which included back-to-back 3s from Young and a critical turnover by Smart after Trae and the Hawks grabbed their first lead since the second quarter.
Boston will travel to Atlanta for Game 6 on Thursday, while the Sixers’ MVP candidate, suffering from a sprained LCL in his right knee, gets two more days of rest.
“Up 12 in the fourth, we smoked the game, but our mindset is to get ready for the next one,” Brown said after Tuesday’s loss. “We’ve been in situations like this before. It’s unfortunate, but you can look around and point fingers, or you can take ownership of the situation. You have two chances to win one. So, come out and get ready for the next game.”
The Celtics get too comfortable with big leads. Give enough of a fight in cleaning the glass, jumpstarting fast-break opportunities, and hitting a few 3s, and you’ll have a crack at pulling off a comeback win. Boston tends to let its foot off the gas pedal when things are going all too well and on the verge of closing out a series, and haven’t shown any signs of getting that out of its system.
We assumed the bad habits were in the Celtics’ rearview. Tatum even reminded us of how vital Game 5 was in the best-of-7 series’ throughout last year’s playoffs, but that didn’t prevent Boston from falling into old habits, where the Celtics lack spacing, effort, and consistency on nights they have a double-digit lead intact. They get way too comfortable and complacent.
The further you go, the higher the stakes, and the competition thickens. The Celtics will most likely win their first-round series against the Hawks. Still, much like we’ve witnessed in years past, outside of last year’s opening-round series against the Brooklyn Nets, it’s the length to which Boston will go down to the wire before ending a best-of-7 series that is risky and not guaranteed to have a happy ending past the first round.
“We have another opportunity on Thursday,” Mazzulla said after Tuesday’s loss. “So, I think it’s a matter of having perspective on the situation. Then, learning and then just going through it. We had an opportunity, and now we have another, so we just have to focus on that.”