BOSTON – Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid was pleased The Atlanta Hawks’ 119-117 victory in Tuesday’s Game 5 came at home in a bad Celtics loss as he sat out two more days with his sprained right knee.
Inside Boston’s locker room, Marcus Smart couldn’t get out fast enough. Jayson Tatum, the No. 2 seed’s superstar answer to Embiid, sat dejected, his knees covered in snow, one hand covering his face as he stared blankly at his phone.
On the sidewalks of TD Garden, Celtics executives, staff and family members were stunned by the loss, angry as they all grasped the repercussions of failing to close out their first-round series.
“Gave them life and s***,” said one.
“Now they have to go back to Atlanta,” said another.
“I will not go with them.”
That’s what Atlanta’s Trae Young does to opponents. For all his faults, the diminutive point guard shoots their hearts out, and when he connects, he basks in their misery. Also, he connected on a 30-footer over Jaylen Brown with 2.8 seconds left? Young’s fifth trey canceled Derrick White’s go-ahead free throws moments earlier to pull the seventh-ranked Hawks to within 3-2 in this best-of-seven.
The 3-pointer came 47 minutes and 47 seconds after Young’s first game-high 38 points — naturally another triple from the opening tip. In between, he played 44 minutes, including the entire second half without suspended backcourt mate Dejounte Murray, and Atlanta trailed for most of them.
The Celtics led 111-99 with 13 points and 5:24 left in the fourth quarter — and presumably the series. Youth did not pay attention. He found Onyeka Okongwu for a layup and his 13th assist of the night. Back-to-back John Collins buckets cut the lead in half, and Young’s 27-footer pulled the Hawks to within 111-108 with three minutes to go, silencing the last “boosted” chants from the Boston crowd.
“When people do that, I think it’s a total respect,” said Young, who struggled during the first two games in Boston. “They don’t do that to everybody. You know what I mean. I’ve been in this moment my whole life. That’s what I do. I’m not afraid of it. I’ve worked really hard. Fear of this moment.”
Young tied the game with a 26-yarder on the next possession. After a Robert Williams III put-back gave Boston the lead, Young drew a foul from Al Horford, and Tatum’s complaint about the call led to a technical foul. Young made all three free throws for a 114-113 edge and Atlanta’s first lead before the break.
“Fourth quarter, close game, being with Trey my whole career, I know what the time is — it’s Ice tray time,” said Collins, who added 22 points. “He’s doing his thing. He’s clutch, he wants to be in those moments. He likes the big shot. It’s normal for me to see him go into that mode and what he does.”
Tatum found Williams on an alley-oop and a one-point advantage with 25.6 seconds left. Young and White traded free throws and made a 30-foot field goal to send the series back to Atlanta for Game 6.
“Shots started going in,” Young said, “and just kept going in.”
Young had scored Atlanta’s final 14 points and outscored Boston’s pressing offense by eight points in the game’s final five minutes when the buzzer sounded on Tatum’s foul answer.
“When you give a team life,” said Brown, who scored 35 points, “you leave it up to chance.”
Once Young returned to the locker room after his winner, he FaceTimed Murray, who will be available Thursday night.
“I told him to be ready,” Young said. “I told him before the game that we’re going to take care of business so he can play in Atlanta, so I can’t wait to see everybody in Atlanta.”
Young’s heroics extended Boston’s comedy of errors. The Celtics committed four turnovers in those final five minutes. Blake Griffin saw his first playing time of the series in the fourth quarter. First-year coach Joe Mazzulla benched Malcolm Brockton and replaced White — their third-best player in the series — with Smart, Atlanta doubled Tatum and rode the Athletics again. After Boston regained the lead with 15.8 ticks left, Young inexplicably fouled at midcourt, and White’s pass in the final seconds never found Horford, who made a layup on the block.
“We lost our momentum a little bit on the offensive end, partly because we were trying to make sure we ran a good game,” said Mazzulla, who didn’t call timeout as the lead evaporated. “We talk about playing fast and we lost some of our speed, which allowed them to press us and go into passing lanes.”
Two days after Tatum stressed the importance of winning Game 5, avoiding the long streak that fueled his exhaustion in last season’s finals, he was drenched in a familiar subplot.
Meanwhile, the rest of the Celtics and their families cleared the long hallway from media availability to the locker rooms, where a smiling young Strode sipped from a small cup of water. Ice cold, we reckon.
“It was loud,” he once said of the raucous arena.