BOSTON (AP) — Joe Mazzulla has been navigating an opportunity he’s always wanted, but never expected to have this soon.
Along the way, the Celtics coach hasn’t strayed too far from what put him in this position in the first place.
“As big as this is, I still think it comes down to the most simple of the details,” Mazzulla said this week. “Just having a plan. Executing that plan.”
It’s been the north star for him as he’s guided Boston this season back from the disorienting preseason jolt of seeing former coach Ime Udoka suspended. The Celtics are a 57-win team, finished second in the Eastern Conference and are again positioned to make another deep playoff run.
A core led by All-Stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown views Saturday’s tip-off of their first-round playoff series with the Atlanta Hawks as the first step toward another shot at an NBA title.
“We’ve essentially been waiting for this moment,” Tatum said. “The group is locked in. The group is focused.”
Having to constantly hear about their shortcomings in the Finals has also kept it top of mind.
“We had the whole summer to talk about it, the whole preseason to answer questions about it. The whole regular season. And now it’s like, ‘We’re back in the playoffs,’” Tatum said. “We get to essentially get another chance at it.”
Most importantly, after being the first Celtics player in franchise history to average 30 points in a season, Tatum said he’s not feeling worn down — even though he averaged 36.9 minutes per game this season, the third-most in the NBA behind Toronto’s Pascal Siakim and Dallas’ Kyrie Irving (both 37.4).
“Physically I feel good. My body feels great. Energy level,” he said. “So, overall, I feel pretty good.”
Boston will face an Atlanta team that is coming off a 116-105 win over Miami to improve to 3-0 all-time in the play-in round and earn the seventh seed.
It capped what was a remarkable finish to the regular season for the Hawks, who were 12-11 following the firing of Nate McMillan but had new coach Quin Snyder on the sidelines for the final 21 games.
The Hawks get most of their offensive production from the backcourt of Trae Young (26.2 points per game) and Dejounte Murray (20.5), augmented by Bogdan Bogdanovic (14.0) off the bench.
Two years ago, Atlanta made a surprising run to the East finals before losing to eventual NBA champion Milwaukee. The Hawks haven’t been able to build on that success. A year ago, they had to win two games in the play-in round just to make the playoffs, then were blown out in the opening round by the Heat.
Boston finished 16 games ahead of Atlanta during the regular season, which could mean another short postseason stay for the Hawks. But Clint Capela, who had 21 rebounds against the Heat, said his team is motivated by all the skeptics.
“They don’t really believe in us,” Capela said. “We take pride in that. We love it, we enjoy it. It’s OK what you guys think. Let us shows you guys that we have more than what you think. It’s not the regular season anymore. Teams are different. We’re different.”
READY TO GO
Despite some recent issues, the Celtics are as close to full strength as they’ve been all season.
Brown returned to practice Thursday after cutting a finger on his shooting hand during in an accident at home that caused him to miss the final two games of the regular season.
Smart also said he’s also ready to go after missing the final two games with a nerve issue in his neck that was causing spasms.
The conservative approach the team took with Robert Williams III throughout the season following his preseason knee surgery appears to have him ready to play big postseason minutes.
“I’m in a good mindset compared to last year, obviously, going through what I was going through,” Williams said. “I’m just anxious, man. I’m ready to play.”
The enigmatic Hawks hovered around .500 for most of the season, and their maddeningly inconsistent play was apparent after a season-best five-game winning streak ended on Jan. 21.
Since then, Atlanta never climbed more than two games above .500, nor dropped more than one game below the break-even point. Amazingly, they were at .500 after 17 of their last 36 regular-season games, including a final loss that dropped them, appropriately enough, to 41-41.
AP Sports Writer Paul Newberry in Atlanta contributed to this report.
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