For a moment, the Celtics could forget about their losing record and the rebuild and the uncertainty that comes from the looming trade deadline.
For a moment, they could soak up a rare yet authentic roar from the TD Garden crowd. James Young could give Phil Pressey a hug. Jae Crowder could smile and rub Jared Sullinger’s head. The Celtics could, and their fans could, look up at the scoreboard and just enjoy an unlikely result: Boston 89, Atlanta 88.
“For 47 minutes, 59.8 seconds,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said, “we were the losing team.”
But that left just enough time for Evan Turner, just enough time for one perfect shot in a mostly imperfect game.
The Celtics clawed back from an 18-point deficit and trailed, 88-87, when Turner dribbled upcourt after a missed shot. He nearly had the ball taken away from behind, and the situation was unsettled. So Stevens called a timeout and drew up a play with two primary options: Turner could find Avery Bradley coming off a screen, or he could take it himself.
“When I told Evan he had the option to drive, I knew he was probably not going to get rid of the ball,” Stevens said. “I knew he was probably going to try to take it and make a play.”
Turner knew this, too. He thought to himself that he hoped Bradley wouldn’t be mad at him. But how could Bradley be mad after this?
Turner received a screen from Sullinger and took the inbounds pass near the top of the key. He went to his left, then made a quick dribble behind his back and headed toward the right side of the basket. His running, one-handed floater went in cleanly with 0.2 seconds left.
After a timeout, the Hawks’ inbounds pass from near halfcourt caromed off the backboard and was smacked away, giving the Celtics a stunning win.
It was stunning for many reasons. The Hawks (43-11) have towered over the Eastern Conference this season. They had gone 20-2 over their last 22 games.
They have four All-Stars on their roster, while the Celtics don’t even have a player participating in All-Star Weekend.
So when Atlanta surged to a 9-0 lead that ballooned to 45-27, there was good reason to believe the Celtics would limp into the break after being reminded of the gap between the haves and have-nots.
The Hawks had been 37-1 when leading by 10 points or more in a game. They’d been 30-2 when holding an opponent below 100 points. But in the end, past would not serve as prologue.
The most stunning aspect of Boston’s comeback was that it didn’t exactly coincide with a sparkling stretch of basketball. More accurately, the Celtics’ shooters were cold and the Hawks’ shooters were colder.
“Playing against one of the best teams in the NBA, it can’t be a pretty win,” guard Marcus Smart said. “It’s going to be a scrappy game. You’re going to have to get down and dirty with it.”
And so that’s what the Celtics did. They defeated a powerhouse despite shooting just 30 of 93 from the field.
But as their shots clanged off the rim, they made up for the shortfall elsewhere.
The 56-44 rebounding edge. The 19 of 20 free throw shooting effort. The 10 turnovers.
“I think what it does is it gives you a little bit of hope in close games in close situations,” Stevens said. “I didn’t think [the Hawks] played their best, I didn’t think we played our best, which is encouraging, because you win.”
The Hawks looked like a team that was playing its third road game in four nights, a team that had somehow become the hunted this year, forced to absorb the best shots of opponents. And it might not have helped that one of the team’s two buses arrived behind schedule when it took about an hour to go 2 miles on the snow-shrunken, gridlocked roads from the Ritz-Carlton to TD Garden.
Still, for most of this game, none of this seemed to matter. The Hawks took a 72-61 lead to the fourth quarter, and it looked like this game would end like so many others have for Atlanta this season.
In the final period, though, the Hawks shot just 5 for 16 and committed six turnovers. With 1 minute, 39 seconds left in regulation, Bradley drained a 3-pointer from the right arc to pull the Celtics within 86-85.
Al Horford stretched the lead back to 3 before Sullinger scored on a strong take to the basket. After missed shots by both teams, the Celtics had one last chance, and Turner took care of the rest.
Sullinger finished with 17 points and 15 rebounds. Turner added 12 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists.
Stevens was calm afterward. He knew there had been many flaws in this game, so the message to his team as it headed to the break was simple: “Don’t lose the momentum we’ve worked toward.”