Terry Rozier is still working to carve out a role during his rookie season with the Celtics, but on Friday afternoon, his job was simple. Coming off a loss Wednesday night, Amir Johnson sensed that the Celtics' spirit was floundering a bit, so he instructed Rozier to bring his speakers to the locker room before the game. Rozier connected his gray, dinner-plate-size speakers to Johnson's iPhone, and the music blared.
"Just to get everybody's vibe going," Johnson said, "and get everybody's energy up."
Of course, a catchy beat will not defeat another NBA team, especially one as talented as the Hawks. But the hope was that more verve would at least help. Celtics coach Brad Stevens said that at the team's late-afternoon shootaround, Johnson in particular "was going 100 m.p.h."
And later in the night, there were the Celtics, hustling and rebounding and playing like this game was more meaningful than those played in mid-November typically are. They tugged and pulled to a 106-93 win, their most impressive during this young season.
"Whatever happened, we were just ready to throw the kitchen sink at them," forward Jared Sullinger said, "and that's what we did."
After the Celtics lost to the Pacers on Wednesday, Sullinger was openly critical of the team's rebounding — himself included. He said there were times when they would come down with the ball and simply have it ripped away. And that was no way to be.
In this game, the Celtics were the aggressors. They outrebounded the Hawks, 50-35, and grabbed a season-high 17 offensive rebounds. Those second chances were part of the reason Boston attempted 103 shots, compared with just 76 for Atlanta.
The Celtics' big men told their teammates that they would box out and hold off the Hawks' post players however they could, but they would also need reinforcements sometimes. And the help arrived.
"I just think we have to gang rebound," guard Evan Turner said. "It's just toughness, ripping the ball down and keeping it."
The Celtics have not shot well this season, and Friday's first half was no different. Despite shooting just 34 percent, though, they went to the locker room at halftime tied at 45.
Stevens gathered with his assistants and could find very little to critique. The transition defense was strong, the rebounding was excellent, and the shots, while errant, were open. He was encouraged.
"Like, we were really locked in," he said. "We just weren't making anything."
So Stevens's message was simple and to the point. He told his players to shoot it like they were going to make it. He wanted them to have confidence. The accuracy in the second half was not extraordinary, but at 47.2 percent it was far better, and, ultimately, more than enough.
The Hawks led, 60-59, midway through the third quarter when the Celtics seized control by closing the period with a 21-9 run. A sweeping layup by Jonas Jerebko with 9:59 left in the fourth gave the Celtics their largest advantage, 86-71. But the Hawks pushed back with a 12-0 burst.
The Celtics had the ball with a 96-93 lead when Stevens called a timeout as the shot clock wound down. The offense was a bit unsettled, and he wanted to get Isaiah Thomas into the game.
"The momentum had shifted," Crowder said. "We felt it on the bench."
After the timeout, though, Crowder drove and dished the ball to Amir Johnson for a layup, sparking a 10-0 burst. A Crowder 3-pointer made it 104-93 with 1:42 left. Crowder had missed his first four 3-pointers of the game and has struggled with his long-range shooting this year.
"They made their run and then we just finished the game off at a high level," Thomas said. "These type of nights give us confidence."
Stevens said the Celtics' late-game execution was their best this season. Thomas led the team with 23 points and 10 assists, and Johnson added 19 points, 8 rebounds, and 4 assists.
"I think it started with Amir, and I think that was really obvious," Stevens said. "You could see it up front."
The Celtics attacked rebounds with great urgency. If missed shots were not gobbled up, they were usually tipped or kept alive, at least giving Boston a chance.
"We wanted the ball more than [the Hawks]," Sullinger said. "There's a lot of plays that we were on the ground . . . Just, it's effort. It's effort. We had the attitude, the effort to go after the rebounds and understand that if we get our hands on them, we're gonna keep them."
The Celtics, who entered the game averaging 16.7 turnovers per game, committed just 10. Paul Millsap had 14 points to lead the Hawks, whose head coach, Mike Budenholzer, missed the game because of an undisclosed family emergency.