ATLANTA — As towels twirled and hawk noises shrieked over loudspeakers and Trae Young started to look like the biggest star on a floor that included plenty of them, Hawks fans began to truly believe.
Their seventh-seeded team that was trounced in the first two games of this series against the Celtics and appeared ready to shuffle into summer had come to life. The Hawks roared back from a late double-digit deficit to steal Game 5 in Boston, and midway through the fourth quarter of Game 6, they were circling.
They had the lead, they had hope, and the Celtics were at a crossroads. Boston’s defense that had become one of the NBA’s most formidable looked like it was trying to stop a tidal wave with a paper towel. The Celtics needed to figure it out.
But then the Celtics held the Hawks scoreless for 4 minutes, 29 seconds, helping ignite a defining 11-0 run that allowed them to secure a 128-120 victory that also gave them the series, 4-2. The Celtics advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals, where they will face the 76ers. Game 1 is Monday night at TD Garden.
“I thought our guys did a great job at the end of just locking in,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said. “They wanted to win.”
While this series was probably more challenging than most expected, these playoffs have already shown nothing can be taken for granted. On Wednesday, the eighth-seeded Heat pushed aside the No. 1 Bucks in one of the most stunning upsets in NBA history.
That result turned the Celtics into even more substantial championship favorites, but it also provided a jarring reminder how quickly a promising season can come to a sudden halt.
If the Celtics go on to win a championship this year, they will probably look back with admiration at how willingly the Hawks tested them in this series. For now, they are probably just pleased to get a clean slate and continue their title pursuit.
“It ain’t got to be pretty,” forward Jaylen Brown said. “We’ve just got to figure out how to do it, and that’s what we did.”
Tatum had 30 points, 14 rebounds and 7 assists to lead the Celtics, and Brown poured in 32 points. Trae Young had 30 points to lead the Hawks but was just 4 for 18 after erupting for 18 points in the first quarter, with Boston upping its physicality and mixing in timely traps.
Neither team led by more than 3 points over the first eight minutes of the fourth quarter, with each big shot seemingly answered by another.
In the Celtics’ Game 5 collapse, their offense became far too stagnant as they looked to bleed the clock rather than maintain the attack that had given them their lead in the first place. That appeared fresh on their minds on Thursday.
“Playing fast doesn’t mean helter-skelter,” Mazzulla said. “It’s just we got organized really fast, we spaced fast, we found the advantage fast and made the right play. And then just big-time shots.
“Jaylen and Jayson, passing with [Marcus] Smart, and Al [Horford] hit two big shots there. So when at the end of the game you can put pressure on the defense by playing with a sense of pace, it can really help you.”
Tatum and Brown both attacked double teams quickly and precisely, and Smart served as the conductor in the middle of it all, using the space created by the clusters elsewhere to shine.
With the Hawks ahead, 113-110 and the crowd chanting “A-T-L,” Brown, an Atlanta native, may have assumed they were for him, as he tied the score with a deep 3-pointer. Then Horford, a former Hawks star, hit one with 3:36 left, before Tatum added another and a putback slam to cap the game-defining 11-0 run that made it 121-113.
“We could feel it,” Tatum said. “Everyone was locked in, getting blocks, chasing down rebounds, hitting big shots.”
With Boston leading, 126-120, it deflected three consecutive Hawks inbounds passes out of bounds, before the fourth try sailed out on its own with 18.4 seconds left. Horford pumped his fist, the win sealed.
After crunch-time lapses in the stunning Game 5 loss in Boston, the Celtics returned to form when they needed to Thursday night. Their late stand would be impressive in any situation, but it was particularly notable in this one given how freely that Hawks had scored for most of the night.
“It was a great test for us,” Tatum said. “They definitely tested us, coming here in this environment, they had the utmost confidence throughout this game. You could see it.”