ATLANTA — Joe Mazzulla had about two minutes to get some things done.
It was during the first timeout of Sunday’s Game 4 at State Farm Arena – the Boston Celtics then three points ahead Derrick White‘s jump shot forced at 7:47 in the first quarter Atlanta Hawks to request the break – as the Celtics coach walked up to him Jaylen Brown to ask what he saw in the Hawks’ reporting.
Mazzulla then quickly turned his attention and anger towards White, angrily reminding him of a botched defensive task in the opening minutes of the game and glaring at him as he rushed to his assistants for the final moments of game planning.
It’s the kind of constant, unrelenting attention that Mazzulla and the Celtics say they’ll need this postseason if they’re to overcome the pain of losing last year’s NBA Finals to the Warriors of the Golden State.
Boston has managed to improve enough fine details Beat the Hawks 129-121 and take a 3-1 lead Heading home for Game 5 on Tuesday. It was the Celtics’ first opportunity this postseason to react to defeat and test the resolve the team had built all season.
Losing Game 3 on Friday didn’t shock the system like losing Game 6 at home last season intense heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, which made Boston’s path to the Finals that much more difficult, but it was enough to remind the Celtics of what it takes to have a similar redemption story as the Warriors did in 2017-2016 Cleveland Cavaliers2014 San Antonio Spurs2012 Heat, or any team that lost in the Finals and used that memory to lead them to a championship the following year.
“Beginning of the year [the Finals defeat] was fuel, it really got us going,” said Celtic’s big man Al Horford ESPN said after Game 4. “We got away from that a little bit. But now that we’re in the playoffs, we’re not addressing it as a group, but when we’re addressing it individually, it’s something that’s still there.”
The details the Celtics addressed in Game 4 were primarily rebounds — the Hawks dominated the boards 48-29 in Game 3 — and cleaning up a defense that allowed the Hawks to shoot 56% from the floor.
The answer, in addition to extra effort, was a rotary switch that Horford and saw Robert Williams III back on the floor together as they did for most of last season.
Williams fends off his defender for an impressive And-1
Robert Williams III is not denied as he brings down the And-1 to extend the Celtics lead.
This year, the team wanted to play faster and chose to share the center court between the two. On Sunday, Williams followed his five-rebound performance in Game 3 with 15 boards to go with 13 points, two blocks and two steals in 22 minutes, 10 more than in Game 3. Horford grabbed 11 rebounds and Boston turned the previous throttling on the Bump around in Game 4 with a minor adjustment to a 49-42 rebounding edge.
“That’s what makes our group so diverse,” Horford said. “There will be some games where we will have to play together and some games where we will have four guards and a big one. That is the strength of our team.”
The first round is hardly the time for self-adulation. If the Celtics have learned anything over the past year, it’s that the intensity needs to escalate as the playoffs progress. Last postseason, the Celtics believed they were going in the opposite direction after sweeping Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Networks in an intense first-round series.
“It wasn’t a traditional 2-7 match,” said the Celtics forward Jayson Tatum said after Game 4. “We swept them, but … that was the toughest sweep I’ve ever participated in.
“And I think Game 1 against it [the] Milwaukee [Bucks] Last year we got our asses kicked because it was a different series, different team, more body. We needed a game to adapt. And I think that kind of hurt us and made it harder for us.
“Never be too comfortable with a lead because every game is just as important.
Tatum’s Finals performance last season likely remains a large part of his personal fuel. The Celtics’ top scorer averaged 21.5 points per game on 36.7% shooting and made 23 turnovers in those six games against Golden State.
Looking like a determined man on Sunday, he set the tone defensively for his team and finished the game with three blocked shots, including one by Hawk’s Big Man Clint Capela.
“We talk about it all the time, just do what it takes,” Tatum said. “Sometimes these are more rewarding than hitting hard shots.
“Not to brag, but I do that a lot. But those blocks really trigger a reaction from my teammates and that really gets us going.”
Tatum blocks Young resulting in a Jaylen Brown jam
Jayson Tatum saves Trae Young at the basket, setting up a fast break slam from Jaylen Brown.
The Celtics designed t-shirts with the phrase “unfinished business,” with the “is” in “unfinished” stylized to resemble an 18, as in the Celtics’ quest for an 18th championship in team history.
It’s a gimmicky reminder of a painful experience. But the Celtics don’t seem to need that graphic T motivation.
“You’re going to have moments where you’re let down for a game or two, but you can’t spiral that out,” Boston continued Grant Williams ESPN said after Boston’s Game 3 loss.
“That’s the growth we need to have as a team, especially with the previous experience. To be able to go to the finals no matter who was in the rotation – you have to have that perspective and communicate that urgency.”