Sometimes, there’s not much to embellish. After four games full of twists and turns, the Hawks—Celtics series delivered its most decisive result to date, in the form of an 110–83 home-court beatdown from Atlanta, which maintained the upper hand and took a 3–2 lead in the series following two narrow losses in Boston. A poor opening precluded what became a balanced, dominant scoring effort from the Hawks. Let’s run it back:
An uninspiring start
Frankly, this game featured a tepid opening stanza. Neither team had much luck from the field until the end of the first quarter, when Boston ripped off an 8–2 run to close the period with a five-point lead. Paul Millsap, who had 45 points in Atlanta’s Game 4 loss, mustered just one shot, dealing with double teams and heavy pressure. Al Horford also failed to score. There was just no flow: the Hawks managed just 15 points in the first 12 minutes, no player made more than one field goal and a normally pass-happy group assisted on just one of the five they did make.
You’d think this would have benefited the Celtics more, but Isaiah Thomas — whose play thus far has largely been an indicator of where games are headed — also couldn’t muster a bucket, taking just two shots. And as the Hawks continued to sputter in the second quarter, their typically drive-reliant opponents settled for jump shots and struggled with turnovers. By now you’ve heard complaints about a dreary first round, and the first 18 minutes of this one were “Exhibit A.” Teams don’t usually cling to 10-point leads, but Boston did.
A small-ball solution
The Hawks were the East’s best defensive team after the All-Star break. They’ve compensated for an undersized frontline with consistently herculean efforts from Millsap and Horford. They kept things within striking distance amid their driest patch of playoffs to date. And at the midway point of the second, in came Mike Scott and Thabo Sefolosha, while Millsap shifted down to center and the game opened up for good.
A smaller, spacier look sparked a ridiculous 26–6 run that kicked off with three threes from a scalding Kent Bazemore amid a run of 11 straight Atlanta makes. Boston’s similarly-small lineup was overpowered, with Amir Johnson manning the middle, wings losing track of shooters and guards struggling to stop penetration. No adjustments mattered and few shots fell as the Hawks locked up in transition, assisted on 10 of their 12 makes, took a 47–39 lead into halftime and never looked back.
The third quarter included a 14–1 run Atlanta run, spurred by decisive ball movement and easy looks that bred peak confidence. Four different players hit threes, eight different guys scored, and sure enough, a garbage-time lineup featuring Kirk Hinrich and Kris Humphries opened the fourth to defend an 89–62 lead.
A distressing finish
How could this have possibly gotten worse for Boston? With 10:14 to go in the fourth quarter, Thomas, (who was a minus-33 with just seven points on the night) headed for the locker room following a visibly-awkward landing. He committed a foul just to stop play and check himself out. The Celtics announced a “mild left ankle sprain,” and he sat the rest of the night.
The series now moves back to Boston, where the Celtics pulled out Game 3 and 4. The Celtics now face a must-win scenario on Thursday. Already down Avery Bradley, they’ll need Thomas’s offense to stave off elimination: the dynamic guard totaled 70 points — all crucial — across the two wins. But with Thomas now the fourth All-Star-caliber player injured in as many days (Steph Curry on Sunday, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin on Monday), it appears the Celtics might get off more easily. The term “mild” has probably never inspired more hope.