Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum each scored 31 points and the Boston Celtics led nearly the entire way, holding off the Atlanta Hawks for a 129-121 victory Sunday night and a commanding 3-1 lead in the opening-round playoff series.
The Celtics can deliver the clincher Tuesday night when the series returns to Boston for Game 5.
Tatum and Brown combined to score Boston’s final 16 points.
Brown, who had been wearing a protective mask after sustaining facial contusions in February, took off the device after making only 1 of 7 shots. He went 11 of 15 the rest of the way.
Boston never trailed after grabbing a 4-3 lead on Derrick White’s basket just over a minute into the game.
Tatum delivered a huge 3-pointer off a loose ball with two minutes remaining, pushing the Celtics to a 118-106 lead.
Young hit a long 3-pointer that brought the Hawks within three, but Boston got the last shot and put the ball in Smart’s hands. The Celtics cleared the middle of the court so he could blow by Bogdan Bogdanovic, laying it in for a 92-87 lead heading to the final quarter.
Smart was in the Celtics lineup and looked just fine after a hard fall near the end of Game 3.
He landed on his tailbone while battling for a rebound, prompting Boston to list him as a game-time decision. But coach Joe Mazzulla declared his guard “good to go” well ahead of tipoff.
KEEPING IT CLEAN
The first week of the playoffs has been marred by flagrant fouls, ejections and suspensions.
There have been no major issues in the Celtics-Hawks series, though Young did pick up a flagrant foul for grabbing Tatum’s arm on a drive through the lane in the third quarter.
“I think it’s been a clean series,” Hawks coach Quin Snyder said. “Physicality isn’t necessarily wrong. It’s part of the game. You can be physical. I think the word is ‘aggressiveness’ as much as anything. Both teams have done that.”
Celtics: After getting outrebounded 48-29 in Game 3, Boston came out much more determined on the boards. They held a 19-9 edge at the end of the first quarterback, 32-20 at halftime and finished with a 53-52 edge.
Hawks: Hall of Famer Dominique Wilkins missed his second straight game as commentator on the Hawks regional telecast because of an illness. He is expected to return for Game 5.
But Boston need only rewind to last year for an even firmer reminder of the importance of keeping fuel in the tank. The Celtics expended so much energy with two seven-game wars against the Bucks and Heat that the team was on empty by the end of the Finals against Golden State.
The Hawks showed that, when Boston’s defense isn’t fully locked in, they can make things interesting with their offensive firepower and a relentless desire to collect offensive rebounds. The Celtics played from behind for much of Game 3 and could never quite get over the hump with Atlanta responding to every second-half charge.
“We gotta come out and take care of business and do what we gotta do to move forward,” Brown said. “I think that Atlanta’s a good team. They’re young. We’ve been in that position before. The young guys coming in looking to make a name for themselves against one of the favorites. We can’t take our foot off the gas.”
Friday night felt more like a case of Atlanta playing to its peak than Boston necessarily downshifting with a 2-0 lead. The Celtics absolutely could have been sharper but the Hawks got a monster output from their role players and the backcourt tandem of Murray and Young carried them to the finish line.
Now it’s on Boston to reassert itself. The Celtics can’t let these series linger if they plan to be playing two months from now. The Celtics need to show that they truly learned their lesson from last year.
Although Harden’s flagrant occurred during the midst of ordinary game action, referees evidently determined his hand striking O’Neale below the belt to be a non-basketball play rather than an accidental part of using his off hand to protect the ball.
Asked on TNT’s broadcast of the game whether contact to the groin automatically results in a flagrant 2, NBA senior vice president of referee development Monty McCutchen replied, “No. We have several things we look at. It’s not an automatic call, because you can have incidental contact there. But when you have significant contact, when you see that it has real impact to the groin, we want to make sure we are protecting players.”
Any possible flagrant foul call is subject to replay review, but unlike other calls that are determined in the NBA replay center in Secaucus, New Jersey, in the cases of flagrant fouls and altercations, the decision is made by the referees on the court with the replay center “playing a supporting role.”
If the 76ers or Grizzlies play deep into the playoffs, however, the NBA’s rules on flagrant foul accumulation which are the same for both regular season and postseason could come into play. Players are automatically suspended for one game if they reach four total flagrant points, with a flagrant one counting as one point and a flagrant two counting as two points. Barring calls being downgraded after the fact, that already puts Harden and Brooks — like Green — halfway to a suspension.
The last player suspended for flagrant foul accumulation in the playoffs was Green during the 2016 NBA Finals, when his absence for Game 5 helped the Cleveland Cavaliers’ comeback from a 3-1 series deficit to beat the Warriors.
The league also typically takes a hard stance against anyone making contact with a game official. In October, Celtics forward Grant Williams was suspended for a game for making contact with a game official when he was ejected from the fourth quarter of a loss to the Chicago Bulls.
Murray is averaging 25.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 2.3 steals through four games in this series. He is in his first season with the Hawks, after being acquired in a blockbuster trade with the San Antonio Spurs last summer.
Across 74 games this season, Murray who was an All-Star last season in San Antonio averaged 20.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 6.1 assists.
While still with the Spurs last season, Murray was fined $20,000 after he was ejected from a game in Memphis on Feb. 28, 2022, when he threw a game ball off the legs of a referee.
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