With Kemba Walker out due to load management, Javonte Green was the new starter du jour, and Aaron Nesmith continued to respond well to the call of opportunity.
But the Celtics once again needed more than the promise of youth. They needed some sign that, with Walker and the injured Marcus Smart and Daniel Theis on the side, they could string together some consistency.
They’re still waiting for that, as it turns out, as they fall for the second time in three games to that standard of mediocrity — a .500, 14-14 record.
“It’s definitely tough. We’ve learned, I’ve learned, a lot from these losses,” Jaylen Brown said following the Celtics’ 112-114 loss to Atlanta. “It’s what we asked for, but it’s tough going up and down.
“I know it’s tough to watch. It’s definitely tough to play.”
A poor finishing night by Brown (22 points, 6-for-19), combined with another substandard defensive effort that found the Hawks shooting at a 60% clip most of the way, was simply too much for the Celtics to overcome. The Hawks had it their way all night in the paint, out-scoring the Celtics in that area, 60-46.
Though Jayson Tatum finished with 35 points on 11-for-22 shooting, the Celtics played from behind most of the night. Nothing was enough to contain Trae Young, the dangerous young ATL shooter who scored 40 points from every spot on the floor. Overall, three Hawks scored 20 points or more, much of it at the rim.
The only remaining debate appeared to be who was more responsible for the breakdowns — the Celtics guards and wings, or the bigs.
“I think you’ll be able to look at the film and say that I think there’s improvement that can be made in all those areas,” said Brad Stevens. “I thought our perimeter defense made it really hard on our paint defense. Our guys protecting us, either rotating over or in pick-and-roll, there were a couple times where our bigs certainly got beat off the bounce and those type of things, but I’m not sure that we had a huge impact on them on the ball, certainly not the way that they impacted us, I felt like.”
On Friday night, though, there was no such thing as narrowing down the mistakes — not when the Celtics were even getting beat down the floor, repeatedly, after made baskets.
“Yeah, I think that’s an area that has to improve if you’re going to have any chance of being a good team,” Stevens said of the ongoing transition defense issue.” Obviously our defensive numbers have continued to go up, but it’s just such a small margin of error for being a good defense or not, and those baskets kill you. So you have to do a better job of that. There’s no doubt about that. I feel like there’s been more of those this year in 28 games or whatever it is than there were last year.”
Atlanta opened some space mid-way through the fourth quarter with a 12-2 run, and although the Celtics dug in, Trae Young’s fourth 3-pointer of the night was good for a 108-95 lead — the Hawks’ biggest to that point.
Semi Ojeleye hit a corner 3-pointer, Young buried a rainbow from the free throw line, and Brown scored to cut the Atlanta lead to 110-100.
Tristan Thompson hit two free throws after rebounding a Tatum miss with three minutes left, and the next time down Tatum slashed to cut the Atlanta edge to 110-104. Young took it right back with a drive, and scored again off a goaltend for a 114-104 lead.
Young buried another dagger for a 116-106 lead, Tatum was fouled off a drive, hitting twice. But Young, fouled by Javonte Green, gave the Hawks a 10-point edge again with 54.8 seconds left with two free throws.
Brown hit a 3-pointer, cutting the Hawks lead to 118-111 with 50 seconds left. The Celtics followed by forcing an eight-second violation on the subsequent inbounds play, and Tatum was fouled attempting a 3-pointer against a triple team.
He hit three times with 13.7 seconds left, cutting the ATL edge to 118-114, two of it matched by John Collins from the line down the other end for a six-point ATL lead.
Tatum’s ensuing three attempt simply missed.