NBA Playoffs: With Sixers waiting, Celtics can’t afford to toy with Hawks anymore

Boston Celtics big men Robert Williams III and Al Horford set the defensive tone in a Game 4 win over the Atlanta Hawks.  (Dale Zanin/USA TODAY Sports)

As the Boston Celtics built another double-digit lead in the first quarter of their first-round playoff series, Atlanta Hawks coach Quin Snyder told his team in a timeout, “They’re playing a lot harder than us.”

Snyder was right. The Celtics dominated when it got underway, but as has been the case all season, they let their foot off the gas and needed lockdown defense late to pull out a 129-121 win. Boston must avoid a 2-2 series and shut out Atlanta in Game 5 on Tuesday, but they can’t afford to navigate the stretch on cruise control against high-powered Eastern Conference opponents — namely, the Philadelphia 76ers.

The Sixers completed a sweep of the Brooklyn Nets on Saturday without the injured Joel Embiid. That win, combined with Boston’s loss to the Hawks on Friday, afforded the MVP favorite’s right knee at least six days off entering the conference semifinals. The Celtics will host Philadelphia for Game 1 on Saturday if they end Atlanta’s season on one day’s rest. Otherwise, Embiid will have until May 1 to earn the right.

Credit Hawks stars Trae Young and Dejonte Murray, who scored 22 of their 57 combined points on some remarkable shot-making in the fourth quarter of Game 3. But the Celtics realize they lost their shot at a sweep in the second quarter of Friday’s game, when they allowed 41 points to anyone and everyone in Atlanta.

Afterward, Boston’s Grant Williams told reporters, “We can’t give the team that life and confidence throughout the game,” as Jayson Tatum bemoaned his decision-making on four turnovers.

It was the Celtics’ downfall in last year’s NBA Finals, while the Golden State Warriors enjoyed a tired team. First-year Boston coach Joe Mazzulla stressed the importance of evaluating every possession since taking over in September, and veteran Al Horford has repeated the mantra ever since.

“We were relaxed a lot last year,” Tatum said after scoring 31 points on 20 shots in Sunday’s win. “We’re trying not to make it too hard on us, not to relax, and get closer to getting there [to Game 5] With the mentality that we’re 3-1 down and we have to win, instead of thinking it’s over and they’re going to give up. Because they are not. They are a really well-coached team, they have great players, and they have a lot of pride. “Going in there with the mindset that we have to win to survive, learning from our mistakes last year kind of made the road a little bit tougher for us, and I think we’ll be ready.”

Mazulla is not without fault here either. He has urged his team to play through adversity all season, sometimes to a fault when a timeout can stop the tide. He saw Atlanta’s 9-0 run midway through Sunday’s second-quarter slash to cut a double-digit deficit, 53-49. The Celtics responded, pulling their advantage back to 65-53 at the break, but better opponents could flip the lead with similar momentum.

The rookie head coach had an opportunity to challenge his team’s physicality and balance when Atlanta called an early timeout. “We must have the understanding that we cannot be comfortable or passive,” he said.

Boston also emphasized rebounding in Game 4 after the Hawks beat them on the boards by a 48-29 margin on Friday. In the loss, Mazzulla broke away from the double-double combination of Robert Williams III and Horford that transformed the Celtics into a defensive juggernaut last season. On Sunday, the coach returned to the rotation that won him Games 1 and 2, and his team narrowly won the rebounding battle.

“Rob is the type of person where he realizes he has a lot of gifts and he has a lot of abilities,” Mazzulla said. “Guys need to feel appreciated and feel empowered, so every conversation with Rob is about, when he’s at his best, we’re a different team and we’re constantly reminding him of that.”

Boston Celtics big men Robert Williams III and Al Horford set the defensive tone in a Game 4 win over the Atlanta Hawks.  (Dale Zanin/USA TODAY Sports)

Boston Celtics big men Robert Williams III and Al Horford set the defensive tone in a Game 4 win over the Atlanta Hawks. (Dale Zanin/USA TODAY Sports)

More importantly, Boston locked down defensively with both bigs on the court, allowing a combined 1.03 points per possession in their 16 minutes — stellar against a seventh-ranked Hawks offense that averaged 1.16 points per possession during the regular season. Robert Williams and Horford combined for 26 rebounds in Game 4, nearly equaling the entire team’s output two nights earlier. They added four steals and two blocks.

Both can attest to how important it is for the Celtics to close out this series on Tuesday. Horford is approaching his 37th birthday. He played 38 minutes in Game 1 and dropped that number to 28 on Friday, before Boston needed another 34 from him in Game 4. The Celtics have Williams back from two knee surgeries in the past 13 months, and his 29 minutes off the bench Sunday were the most he’s played this postseason.

Both will be needed to get past Embiid, and they’re not the only Celtics who need rest.

Marcus Smart was questionable for Game 4 after falling hard on his back two nights earlier. He scored 19 points in 29 minutes Sunday after suffering a badly sprained right ankle.

“Throughout the game, it got a little tight on me,” the 29-year-old Smart said of the back injury that nearly sidelined him. “It flared up. Once I stretched it again, loosened it, got some heat on it, it was great. I have to keep checking on it constantly, keep loose and don’t let it tighten. Up. “

Jaylen Brown started Game 4 shooting just 1 for 7 from the field, ditched the mask he wore after suffering a facial fracture in February and scored 29 more points on 11-of-15 shooting without it. He, too, took another hit late in Sunday’s win over a firing arm earlier this month.

“When I first put [the mask] But, I didn’t really like it that much, but I had to wear it,” Brown said. “As the cartilage started to heal — it wasn’t fully developed yet — I started to get more comfortable with it. . Today, I want something different. I don’t know what it was. I needed to change my shoes, clean my hands, take off my mask, whatever I needed to do, I just needed to help my team win.

Catching Atlanta was reportedly a break for Boston, and it might be considering the Milwaukee Bucks are 2-1 in the series against the relentless Miami Heat with an injured Giannis Antetokounmpo. But the Celtics know all too well the cascading effect of lost time between series. Milwaukee and Miami both took them to seven games last season, and after sweeping the first round, they showed exhaustion in the Finals.

Value every possession now, and everyone can feel less harsh against Embiid.

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