ATLANTA — Trae Young scored on Celtics drop coverages, double teams and switches. He found Al Horford, hitting his patented floater and stepped into threes. Boston tried everything on Young as he heated up over the six-game series, and as he grew more comfortable, he looked capable of playing Horford off the floor in Game 6.
Grant Williams entered for a short stint at center before halftime after Young hit 8-of-15 and scored 25 points, keeping the Hawks within one possession, down 68-67, but Williams and Horford returned together after halftime. Williams secured 11 minutes over Robert Williams III’s seven and closed the final seven minutes of the Celtics’ 128-120 win they didn’t separate in until crunch time.
Horford, who played nearly the entire final frame, buried a put-back slam following Jaylen Brown’s missed layup, broke a 113-113 tie with a corner three and rejected a pair of Young drives toward the basket in a dominant closing effort. Joe Mazzulla found his lineups after a series of searching, and rode them back to Boston with his first series win as head coach — an unexpected but necessary challenge before facing the physical 76ers in round two.
“I think it was our pace on the offensive end,” Mazzulla said. “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 they were very proactive. So when you play fast, late game, playing fast doesn’t mean helter-skelter. It’s just we got organized really fast, we got spaced fast, we found the advantage fast and we made the right play, and then just big time shots.”
Horford played to the level before his third block as part of a variety of defensive looks that slowed Young to 1-for-13 from the field in the second half. His last look rattled out from three that would’ve tied the game with three minutes remaining after John Collins won a jump ball Horford forced doubling him in the post with Brown. Tatum followed with a step-back three and hit Smart in the pocket, who found Horford for another corner three that Tatum flushed home with two hands — ending a scary fourth quarter where Atlanta led with six minutes left.
A raucous crowd arriving in hopes of forcing a Game 7 on Saturday roared for each Hawks basket, including a go-ahead three and hook shot from Collins, and Murray’s finish that secured the first Atlanta lead in the fourth. The Celtics otherwise held Murray to 0-for-5 in the first half of his return from suspension, won a 47-45 battle on the boards to clinch the series rebounding win, 270-263 and matched the Hawks’ shot total after an early deficit.
Atlanta took over 30 more shots than Boston did over the six games, which became their greatest method of bridging the talent gap between the two teams. However large it seemed going in, it narrowed quickly.
“In the playoffs, you’ve got basketball, you’ve got execution, then you’ve got this fight going on,” Brown said. “Atlanta, they might not have had all the Xs-and-Os, but they fought. They fought us, they offensive rebounded, they played hard, effort, they used their athleticism. They didn’t back down from no challenges and that’s what we needed to step up, was the fight of the game. That’s what we had to match, that intensity, in the last couple of minutes.”
Brown and Tatum scored 30 points each for the 24th time, improving to 23-1 when they both reach that mark, which Tatum needed to work to cross as the Hawks again threw unpredictable coverages and tried to prevent the Young mismatch as often as possible. Onyeka Okongwu showed on the ball, swatting away a Tatum pass attempt in the third reminiscent of the wave of turnovers that cost Boston Game 5.
Tatum solved that problem by dribbling out of the ensuing double team and scoring inside, then finding Grant on the next set for a corner three. Smart and Tatum played the two-man game in the fourth, with Smart closing the game by generating 13 of the Celtics’ final 16 points after starting the game by getting involved in all 12 points on a 12-2 run.
Brown, who scored 11 points to take a lead at the half, tied the game early in the fourth and hit a go-ahead layup after. His pull-up three over Murray tied the game at 113, setting up Horford and Tatum’s clinching run.
“Like I said earlier at shootaround,” Tatum said. “Playing with pace and making the right play, whether that was earlier in the shot clock, milking it down, and I think we did a better job today of not being stagnant. A lot of those pick-and-rolls, they’re blitzing, isolation, they blitz, hit Smart, he had a couple of layups and kick-outs to Al. Creating an advantage in late game situations, instead of always getting a switch, ISO. There’s times for that, but our offense is most dynamic when we’re all moving, cutting, passing up good shots for great shots.”