ATLANTA — Maybe afraid his team wouldn’t fully acknowledge its deficiencies because the final results have tipped its way so frequently this season, Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens made it a point before Saturday’s visit to the cellar-dwelling Atlanta Hawks to note how Boston had to play better than it had been — even after beating the defending champion Golden State Warriors earlier this week.
“If we dig ourselves a 17-point hole every other game,” Stevens cautioned, “it’s not going to be as much fun as we’ve had recently.”
To be fair to these young Celtics, Stevens never said anything about digging a big hole every game.
The Hawks needed little more than nine minutes to carve out a 16-point lead. It was the fifth time the Celtics had fallen behind by at least that amount this season, including the third time in five games. And typical of this year’s Celtics team, Boston clawed its way back yet again.
Jaylen Brown, having spent the better part of the past 48 hours grieving with family and friends following the death of his best friend in Atlanta, scored a career-high 27 points on 10-of-13 shooting, while re-masked Kyrie Irving added 30 points in a 110-99 triumph at Philips Arena.
The Celtics have now won 15 straight games. It is the team’s longest winning streak since producing a franchise-best 19 consecutive wins from Nov. 15 to Dec. 23, 2008.
Brown, the No. 3 pick in the 2016 draft, produced another monster night after scoring 22 points in Thursday’s win over the Warriors. This is the first time in his career that he’s had consecutive 20-plus point games.
“It’s pretty remarkable when I think about it — he has a great game Thursday, gets up, takes a 6 a.m. flight to Atlanta on Friday, came in and played great again tonight,” said Stevens. “It just takes a special ability to compartmentalize and focus on the task at hand.”
Brown, a native of nearby Marietta, Georgia, flew to be near loved ones after the death of childhood friend Trevin Steede. Brown elected not to talk to a group of reporters after Saturday’s win. Teammates said that, while he has been quiet in recent days, they marvel at the loud performances Brown has produced on the court.
“He’s tough, man,” said Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum. “He’s been playing extremely well, especially after what he’s been dealing with. It shows his character, what type of person he is.”
Added Kyrie Irving: “The physical presence of his best friend is lost, but I know his energy still exists. [Brown is] playing with an unbelievable verve. He may not be saying much, but he knows that we’re all here for him.”
Jaylen Brown accelerates to the paint, absorbs contact and scores a layup before falling to the court.
Celtics guard Marcus Smart has endured the tragic loss of multiple friends and family in recent years, and he’s impressed by the poise of 21-year-old Brown.
“He’s a strong kid,” said Smart. “Anybody in that situation, you know, to come out and play, that shows a lot and it says a lot about that person. We applaud him.
“I’ve been through a lot in my life. And I think that’s what helped me build the character that I have today and get through adversity when adversity hits. I definitely pulled him to the side. There’s things more important than just basketball. He’s witnessing that, he’s going through it. But he’s a strong kid, like I said. This is just another challenge and obstacle that is going to make him stronger.”
Irving continues to shine in the fourth quarter of games, or what he calls “winning time.” The Hawks took their last lead of the game at 86-85 when Dewayne Dedmon made a hook shot with 7:31 left in the fourth quarter. Boston called timeout shortly afterward. Irving would then score 12 of his 30 points over the final 7:23 of play, when the Celtics outscored the Hawks by 25-13 to pull away for the win.
With the shot clock winding down late in the fourth quarter, Kyrie Irving sinks a 3-pointer over Dennis Schroder to seal the Celtics’ 15th consecutive win.
Irving even played the entire game with his protective mask, necessary after suffering a facial fracture last week. Irving had ditched the face wear during the third quarter of Thursday’s win over the Warriors.
“[The mask] felt good,” said Irving. ” You didn’t see me take it off as much, so that’s a positive. I could see just a little bit more of the crowd tonight, the eye holes were a little bit bigger. The basket looked a little bit better.”
The Hawks put up a 35-point first quarter, which included a 16-0 run that helped them build their largest lead of the game. Boston rallied initially behind a reserve-heavy lineup that featured a pair of Marcuses: Morris and Smart.
The third quarter belonged to rookie Tatum, who scored all 14 of his points in the third, shooting 5-of-7 from the field and throwing down a couple of loud dunks.
“I don’t get down on myself,” said Tatum. “I know I can shoot. If the ball doesn’t go in, it doesn’t stop me from shooting.”
The Celtics will go for their 16th straight win on Monday in Texas when they visit the Dallas Mavericks. Stevens will, again, remind his team to try to avoid a big deficit.
“We don’t make it a habit of getting down, but teams are coming at us and giving us their best shot,” said Irving. “The coaching staff makes adjustments, and we go out there and execute it. Things are falling our way.”