With 6:27 remaining in just the second quarter of Game 1 of the playoffs, Al Horford couldn’t hide his emotions.
The Celtics were up 22, and the Hawks earned second and chance opportunities. But Horford wouldn’t allow there to be a fourth. The big man corralled a rebound over Atlanta’s Onyeka Okongwu, drew a foul and then continued dribbling down the court. He took two dribbles before taking a few skips, clenching his right fist and letting out a few screams before slapping the ball.
It was a rare display of emotion for Horford, the 36-year-old steady, mild-mannered veteran who picks his spots to do so. Even though it was only Game 1 of the first round, it was the strong opening statement he and the Celtics were looking for as they restart their pursuit of a championship that they came so close to claiming a year ago.
Horford’s expressions fired up the TD Garden crowd, Jayson Tatum raised his arms to get them louder and the Celtics were on their way to delivering a convincing first punch. Jaylen Brown scored 29 points, Tatum had 25 and Derrick White added 24. Robert Williams had one of his best games of the season, which bodes well for Boston’s championship outlook. The Celtics dominated the first half and let off the gas in the second but ultimately made easy work of the Hawks with a 112-99 victory.
Game 2 is Tuesday night at TD Garden.
The Celtics had been waiting for this moment for weeks. Tatum, earlier in the week, admitted there was some boredom as the postseason and another crack at a championship loomed. It showed with one of their most dominant first-half efforts of the season, which gave them plenty of cushion for an inevitable coast.
Tatum, Brown and Co. tore apart the Hawks’ interior defense to get anything they wanted, and defensively, they were sharp and barely tested. Trae Young was limited to just 16 points on 5-for-18 shooting, representative of a difficult offensive day for the Hawks, who had just one 3-point make at halftime and finished the day 5-for-28 from downtown.
The Celtics led by 30 after scoring 74 first-half points and it looked like they would run away in a blowout but their execution waned in the second half. The Hawks trimmed the Celtics’ lead to 12 with 9:33 to go in the fourth quarter when Joe Mazzulla called timeout. The C’s responded with a 6-0 run – which included four points from Brown – to restore their commanding advantage. Dejounte Murray’s layup made it a 12-point game with 3:16 remaining, but Horford answered with a 3-pointer and the C’s did enough down the stretch.