The defending Eastern Conference champion Boston Celtics narrowly avoided a nightmare scenario: Trae Young and his seventh-ranked Atlanta Hawks took a 3-1 Game 7 first-round series lead.
Late in the fourth quarter of a wild ride that featured 22 lead changes and 15 ties, the Celtics finally established their first cushion since the game’s opening minutes, with key players Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart and Al Horford executing well down the stretch. Won 128-120.
The rest wasn’t perfect, but the Celtics eliminated the Hawks in Game 6 to advance to the conference semifinals, where they would face the third-seeded Philadelphia 76ers. Game 1 is scheduled for Monday night.
Brown scored a team-high 32 points. Tatum added 30 points and a team-high 14 rebounds and seven assists. Game 6 marked the second time in the series — and in their playoff careers — that both scored 30 points in the same game. Including the regular season, Boston is now 23-1 with both eclipsed by 30 points.
Young’s 30 points led the Hawks, who got double-digit scoring nights from five, including De’Andre Hunter (20 points). Dejounte Murray, fresh off his Game 5 suspension, added 14 points and 11 assists.
Brown’s 3-pointer over Murray with five minutes left in the fourth quarter forced the game’s final tie, 113-113. Horford and Tatum followed with 3-pointers, and Tatum’s foul Horford 3 pushed Boston’s advantage to 121-113 with 2:07 left. Atlanta never got within two possessions again.
Down 126-120 with 19 seconds on the clock, the Hawks fumbled the ball inbounds four times. Unable to see Smart, Young twice threw the ball past the Celtics guard and out of bounds to avoid Atlanta spending the final time. Hunter threw his first attempt at Horford and his second into the stands.
The sequence was a fitting end to a strange and entertaining Game 6.
Smart scored nine points in the game’s first three and a half minutes, assisting on the Celtics’ other five points en route to an early 14-4 advantage. The Hawks may have started their vacation right then and there, but as has been the case throughout the series, they never quit. Young’s first of four 3-pointers capped a 15-4 run and marked the first lead change of the game, giving Atlanta a 19-18 lead midway through the first quarter.
From the 7:17 mark of the first quarter to Tatum’s put-back dunk in the fourth minute, the score was within five points on either side for all but 18 seconds — remarkable, considering both teams’ offenses.
The Celtics posted a 50/43/94 shooting split as a team on the night, but the Hawks led 100-98 after three quarters, 21 points on 11 offensive rebounds (eight from Clint Capela and Onyeka Okongwu) entering the final frame. . Boston dialed up its defense in the fourth, holding the Hawks to 20 points — the first time either team scored fewer than 30 in any quarter. Young finished 0 for 7 from the field in the fourth.
The conference seemed to be going Boston’s way earlier in the week, with injured Sixers star Joel Embiid questionable to start the second round and the Miami Heat taking control of the first-round series against the first-seeded Milwaukee Bucks. The other side of the eastern bracket.
Besides, the Celtics blew a 12-point lead in the final five minutes of Game 5 on Tuesday, giving Embiid two extra days of rest, and for a while it looked like they might be headed to a Game 7 with Atlanta on Saturday.
Despite Thursday’s close win, Game 6 tested Boston’s biggest fears against a Philadelphia team that has owned the Celtics twice in the playoffs in the past five years. The Hawks’ guards attacked the 36-year-old Horford relentlessly, their bigs pounded the glass against Boston’s smaller lineups, first-year Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla is still searching for a consistent rotation, and his team has lost focus for long stretches.
Those are concerns for another day. The Celtics avoided their first-round nightmare. Rarely.
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