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Celtics keep their cool late after Marcus Smart’s ejection, hold off Trae Young and the feisty Hawks

The Celtics' Marcus Smart was ejected following this late entanglement with the Hawks' Trae Young (center).Kevin C. Cox/Getty

ATLANTA — When the Celtics faced adversity during their recent three-game losing streak, they crumbled. And for a moment on Saturday night, things were veering in that direction.

Boston’s 16-point lead was whittled to single digits during the fourth quarter, and with 1:25 left, a slightly chaotic scene unfolded, with Marcus Smart and Trae Young tumbling to the floor after Smart confronted Young about being kicked in the groin area on the Hawks star’s drive.

When Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla began to draw up a play as the officials reviewed the incident, Smart was included. Blake Griffin, a veteran who has seen it all, looked down at the white board and had a message for his coach.


“I’m like, ‘He’s not gonna be … There’s no chance he’s out there,” Griffin said, chuckling.

Smart was ejected, but Al Horford took control of the huddle and told his teammates they had to keep their poise. The Celtics returned to the court, regained their focus and secured this 134-125 win, their second in a row.

“We went through some games there where we gave games away and we lost our composure a little bit,” Horford said. “I feel like the last couple we’ve been very conscious of taking advantage of the possessions and, good or bad, moving on. I felt like we did that again tonight.”

The Celtics’ win combined with the first-place Bucks’ overtime loss to the Warriors moved Boston within 1.5 games of the Eastern Conference’s top seed. After a mild rut, the Celtics have steadied themselves and will continue their trip with four consecutive games against opponents who are .500 or below.

“We just have to fight to play our best basketball,” Mazzulla said. “We have to know what that is and we’ve got to do it more times than not. That, to me, is like the most important thing.”


For most of Saturday night, the Celtics were cruising against a Hawks team that just could not stop them. The Celtics got to the rim whenever they pleased, and during one first-quarter stretch made nine shots in a row, including five 3-pointers.

Although Young (35 points, 13 assists) inflicted plenty of damage on offense, the Celtics had success relentlessly hunting him at the opposite end. The Celtics were operating with an urgent, crisp pace but began to slow down a bit too early in the fourth, and the offense suffered.

Although the Hawks pulled within 5 points three times, the Celtics kept responding. A Jayson Tatum jumper. A Smart 3-pointer after he tipped out the offensive rebound. A Horford 3-pointer.

Jayson Tatum went with the finger roll early on his way to 34 points in the Celtics' win.Alex Slitz/Associated Press

With Boston leading, 129-121, Young was fouled on a drive. Smart, who declined interview requests after the game, appeared to take exception to being hit in the groin area with an inadvertent kick. When he confronted Young with his arm around his lower back, the two tumbled to the floor. They were instantly surrounded by teammates, but nothing escalated.

“All of us in there were just trying to do damage control,” Horford said.

Both players received technical fouls and Smart was ejected. In a pool report, the officials’ crew chief Sean Wright said Smart was ejected for his takedown of Young, and that Young received a technical for pointing in Smart’s face.

Young made both free throws, and after Tatum missed a 3-pointer with 1:04 left, Young had a good look at a 3-pointer that could have made it a one-possession game. But he missed that shot, as well as the 5-footer that followed an offensive rebound. After another offensive rebound, Horford finished off the Hawks by swatting John Collins’s shot inside, leading to a Malcolm Brogdon dunk at the other end that made it 131-123 with 33.8 seconds left.


“I think we were just aware of the moment,” Tatum said. “Whatever happened, happened, and the mentality was just to finish the game. And we did. We got key stops. Al came up with a big block that led to a transition bucket, and it just went from there. I think the carryover of moving on to the next play, for us to do that at that time of the game, being on the road, was a big step for us.”

Tatum had 34 points and 15 rebounds to lead the Celtics. Jaylen Brown added 24 points and 7 assists.

Griffin, who appears to have solidified a rotation spot as long as Robert Williams remains out with a hamstring strain, had 8 points and 5 rebounds in 15 minutes, and his hustle plays were probably even more valuable.

“I just like his overall mental, physical, emotional toughness that he brings to our team,” Mazzulla said. “I feel like he just makes the guys better when he’s on the floor.”

Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him @adamhimmelsbach.