For the past three weeks, the Celtics have flicked away undermanned opponents and climbed from the Eastern Conference’s bottom tier toward much more solid ground. But they had one blemish during this powerful run: A 16-point setback against the Hawks, one of the few capable teams they’ve faced recently.
On Sunday, they met again at TD Garden. For the Celtics, it was a chance at redemption, and an opportunity to show their restructured roster will be formidable the final few months of this season.
The start was not encouraging. Boston fell behind by 15 points and trailed by 12 early in the third quarter. But this team gained confidence during its surge, and in the second half shrugged off the deficit, seized control behind Jayson Tatum’s dominant third quarter, and secured a 105-95 win.
“I think guys have been jelling together well, and we know the group we have going forward now,” coach Ime Udoka said. “So I think we’re on a good streak right now, and we always know we can buckle down and lock in where we need to defensively. On the nights when shots aren’t falling, we can grind it out, but if they are falling, you see some of the results we had in the past five or so games.”
The Celtics have won eight in a row and 10 of 11, and this victory pushed them into sixth place in the East, the last spot above the play-in tournament. They are 4½ games behind the first-place Heat; with a favorable closing schedule and other top teams dealing with injuries, there will be chances to climb higher.
“Can’t be concerned [about the standings] at this point,” forward Jaylen Brown said. “There’s 20-plus games left and teams are close. We just have to win as many games as we can and see where the chips fall.”
Tatum said he would have preferred if the Celtics had avoided their bumpy road, but that those stumbles made this ascension more satisfying.
“It makes times like this feel a lot better when you’re having some fun and when you’re down 10 at the half and you figure it out, come back to win,” he said. “Those early struggles kind of make days like this feel a little better. And I think still having the awareness of, we still are a long way from where we hope to be. But I think everybody can see we’re moving in the right direction.”
Tatum had 38 points and 10 rebounds on Sunday, and Robert Williams added 10 points and 14 rebounds for his third consecutive double-double. But the defense was once again most essential. The Hawks shot just 36.6 percent, and All-Star Trae Young was 9 for 26 with 30 points.
No Celtics opponent has scored more than 109 points the last 11 games. Prior to this stretch, Boston surrendered 109 or more in 21 of its first 47.
Although this streak started several weeks ago, the past few days brought a new sense of stability. On Thursday, the Celtics traded away seven players, and acquired Derrick White (Spurs) and Daniel Theis (Rockets).
Theis remained sidelined Sunday because some of the players that were sent to Houston had yet to complete their mandatory physical exams, but White has fit in seamlessly, and the team’s hierarchy is as clear as it has been all year.
Udoka used eight players Sunday, and that included Payton Pritchard’s 11 minutes of action. The Celtics have essentially flipped to a playoff rotation in mid-February. While it could add to the wear and tear on the team’s stars — Tatum played 40 minutes against Atlanta — it’s at least working.
For the second game in a row, White joined starters Tatum, Williams, Brown, and Marcus Smart to finish the game. The group held the Hawks to four points the final 3 minutes, 43 seconds.
“[White] is another guy on the defensive end who can help us get stops, take charges, et cetera,” Brown said. “So it’s been great having him out there. Two games so far and it’s only going to get better.”
The Celtics trailed, 55-45, following a sleepy first half. But they seized control in the third quarter. Al Horford, who made just 3 of 15 3-pointers his prior three games, drilled a pair. Also, Smart drew three fouls on Hawks forward De’Andre Hunter in the first two minutes, two in Atlanta’s offensive end. That sent their best defender to the bench for the rest of the quarter and opened things up for Boston to relentlessly attack the rim.
In the third quarter, the Celtics attempted 12 free throws and scored 16 points in the paint, with Tatum leading the way.
By the start of the fourth, the 10-point halftime deficit was an 87-78 lead. Boston soon stretched it to 97-84 and appeared in position to coast before the Hawks responded with a quick 7-0 burst to pull within six with 3:52 left.
Udoka turned to his new closing five. Tatum shot an air-ball after a timeout, but Robert Williams swooped in for the rebound and scored as he was fouled. On the following possession, Smart grabbed an offensive rebound and scored. There would be no collapse.