ATLANTA — After exhibiting the poise of an 8-year-old after gulping down a 64-ounce Slurpee for the first three quarters Saturday night, the Celtics gathered themselves after another miserable stretch. They decided to play with a calmness and execution not seen since their four-game winning streak — which seemed like weeks ago.
Trailing the Atlanta Hawks by as many as 11 points, the Celtics took care of the ball, set solid screens, chased loose balls, and avoided the discouragement created by a painful six-game losing streak. Jordan Crawford, who played distributor through the first three periods, then picked the most opportune time to spark the offense.
The result of their hard work was a rare fourth-quarter rally and the Hawks were the ones who were inept and frustrated in the waning minutes.
Crawford scored 10 of his 12 points in the fourth quarter and the Celtics responded with a stirring rally and a 94-87 win at Philips Arena, their first victory in 12 days. After Boston stormed back to take an 1-point lead with 3:12 left, Crawford scored 5 straight points, starting with a layup with 1:57 left as the Celtics outscored Atlanta, 30-13, in the final period.
It was a welcome change after a putrid second-half performance Friday against Indiana, in which the Celtics were outscored, 55-32, and committed 16 turnovers. In their six-game slide, the Celtics were finishing games on their backs, exhausted, browbeaten by better teams who executed with more precision down the stretch.
Those opponents also played with more passion, but the Celtics increased their intensity Saturday. Jeff Green chased down a loose ball and clipped it off Atlanta’s Paul Millsap when it appeared Millsap had the ball to himself. Avery Bradley played just 3:35 of the fourth quarter and grabbed one rebound, but that rebound came with Hawks center Al Horford draped on his back and the Celtics leading by just 1 with 2:13 left.
“That’s how we’ll win or maybe have a chance to win in certain games,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “It’s hard to put yourself out there fully with a threat that you still might lose, but that’s what great teams and great organizations do. We just have to do that as much as humanly possible. Those plays are great, but it’s got to be an expectation to make those plays.”
It appeared the Celtics were headed to another disheartening loss when Mike Scott drained a 3-pointer for an 81-70 Atlanta lead with 9:30 left. Gerald Wallace responded with a 3-pointer, sparking a 10-0 run that included a layup by the productive Vitor Faverani (11 points in 14 minutes) and a Courtney Lee jumper with 5:28 left.
Crawford then turned into gunner mode, initiating the offense with dribble penetration. Meanwhile, the Celtics defense finally solved Atlanta’s pick-and-roll, forcing Jeff Teague (3 for 15 from the field, 13 points) to roam aimlessly looking for crevices.
During a late timeout, Stevens said several of the players instructed him to keep the ball in Crawford’s hands.
“When we were down, I think I was the only one struggling on offense,” said Crawford, who was 3 for 5 shooting in the fourth quarter. “I just wanted to make an effort to get to the hole and try to make a couple of plays.
“It didn’t feel like we were supposed to win. They were up 10 and we made a run. We were kind of struggling, missed a couple of shots, and for us to stick with it, everybody grew today.”
The Celtics began the season with four losses, then four wins, then six losses before Saturday. Their last victory came Nov. 11 against the Orlando Magic, and the losing was beginning to take its toll.
“I forgot what it feels like to win a little bit, but it feels good,” said Green (16 points). “We got stops when it counted. We just stuck with it. We didn’t make the second effort [before Saturday]. We were always there for the first effort the last couple of games, but the second effort is what we needed.”
The Celtics nearly collapsed in the third quarter, allowing the Hawks to go on a 17-5 run to end the period for a 74-64 lead. Teague (10 assists) toyed with the Boston defense on the pick-and-roll and was allowed to set up his teammates for easy baskets. He added a runner along with a Cartier Martin bucket to conclude the period.
The Celtics were 4 for 15 shooting in the quarter and committed six turnovers. Atlanta capitalized fully on Boston’s inability to take care of the ball, scoring a whopping 29 points off 16 turnovers through three quarters. Atlanta did not score a point off turnovers in the final quarter.
Stevens said he’s trying to curtail the Celtics’ habit for poor offensive quarters and they scored 5 points in the final 6:46 of the third. The Hawks scored at will during stretches of the period because of defensive breakdowns.
“I don’t know why we go through those stretches,” Stevens said. “The third quarter bothers me, how we played. And that’s been a little bit of a conundrum for us. I’ve got to do more to learn that and figure that out because if I knew, I would try to stop it.”