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BOSTON — The Atlanta Hawks advanced to the second round with a 104–92, series-clinching Game 6 road victory over the Boston Celtics on Thursday night. The 12-point advantage isn’t indicative of the disparity between the two teams on the parquet. This was a demolition.
Celtics head coach Brad Stevens appeared chipper two hours before tip-off, oozing confidence during his pregame presser. Sure, if the Celtics could execute offensively and make shots, they would have an excellent chance to win Game 6, tie the series at 3–3 and earn a winner-take-all Game 7 on Saturday.
Then, Stevens was asked about Isaiah Thomas’s struggles from Game 5. The coach delivered his answer casually, but the gravity of his words hung in the room like a Celtics championship banner.
“We all know that they packed the rim and they packed the paint against Isaiah in the first four games,” Stevens said. “You just have to make the right read, whether it’s a catch and rip and drive or somebody else gets into the paint and makes the right read out of that. But Isaiah can’t force it when they put two to the ball. That’s when you gotta make the right basketball play.”
Translation: The Celtics needed Thomas to do everything offensively.
Atlanta effectively eliminated Thomas from Game 6, blitzing him during pick-and-rolls and sometimes triple-teaming him as he curled off pin-down screens. “Show him a crowd,” Hawks swingman Kent Bazemore said. “Any time he touches the ball he should be looking at four jerseys.” It was nearly a mirror image of Game 2, where Thomas finished just 4 for 15. Thomas shot just 5-for-15 through three quarters on Thursday before a 10-point fourth-quarter flurry. He registered 10 assists, but his teammates left seven assist opportunities on the table, per NBA.com, failing to convert wide-open, weak-side three-pointers Thomas’s penetration created. Those seven opportunities also don’t include the several occasions Boston’s wings hesitated to shoot off Thomas kickouts and perpetuated the offense’s lag. Boston shot just 4 for 24 from deep through three quarters before Jae Crowder hit a three in the final frame.
The Hawks rediscovered the key to their offensive attack as well. Atlanta targeted Thomas in its own high pick-and-roll seemingly every possession during its 15–3 run to open the third quarter and throughout the rest of the second half. This is not an indictment of Thomas. He was a true All-Star this season and a top 30 player in the NBA. But he truly is a liability defensively, and the Celtics sorely missed Avery Bradley to ballhawk, just as much as Bradley’s three-point shooting and subsequent spacing was sorely needed offensively.
Atlanta bullied Thomas in the second half with the one-two punch of Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder driving downhill toward the rim nearly every possession in the second half. With those repeated high screen actions, the Hawks built a lead that ballooned as large as 28. As Thomas failed to keep either point guard in front of him, the Celtics big men were forced to lurch too far outside the paint to contain the ball-handler’s drive. If Al Horford or Paul Millsap didn’t take the ball to the basket, Atlanta whipped the ball around the perimeter in its textbook fashion, dizzying the Celtics’ scrambling wings.
“Me and Al have been playing for a while. Me and Paul have been together for two years now. They know what I’m gonna do, I know what they’re gonna do,” Teague said. “[When] we got shooters all around the perimeter and our big men are making plays, we’re tough to stop.”
It’s a tactic the Hawks must continue to spearhead its offense with against the Cavaliers in Round 2. Kyrie Irving’s defense is nearly as porous as Thomas’s and when Cleveland plays two bigs along with LeBron James, the spacing point-guard penetration provides will do wonders to open the weakside cutting actions Bazemore and Kyle Korver thrive on when they’re not teeing up wide-open triples.
“The more the ball moves, the more people are involved,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “The growth of our team from the start of the series to the end of the series, I think there were a lot of good examples of just moving the ball, moving people and then trying to make something happen.”
Cleveland swept Atlanta in the conference finals a year ago, as James came within a whisker of averaging a monstrous triple double: 30.3 points, 11.1 rebounds and 9.3 assists per game. A staggering 60.9% of his buckets came within five feet of the basket while he shot just 32.1% outside of that range. Yes, the game plan against James has been to force him into a jump shooter ever since the 2011 Finals, but the Hawks might have found a perfect balance of aggressive trapping against Thomas that could translate to a series against Cleveland.
The danger of course will be the Cavaliers’ far superior cast of stationed three-point shooters bordering James pick-and-rolls around the perimeter. The Cavs were the eighth-best three-point shooting team this season, as opposed to the Celtics at 28th, and currently sit second in the playoffs. And Cleveland adds Kevin Love to their postseason arsenal after that gruesome shoulder injury sidelined him from the finals last season. Love attempted seven threes per game during the Cavs’ three regular season meetings with Atlanta, 1.3 more looks than his season average.
Atlanta must continue to hit shots as well. The Hawks rediscovered their high-octane offense in Games 5 and 6 after their scoring attack sputtered during their early struggles, especially in Games 3 and 4 in Boston and the first 18 minutes of Game 5. Atlanta shot the third-worst mark of all playoff teams from three-point land and fifth-worst from the field prior to Game 5. And even after mini explosions in its last two victories, Atlanta’s offense is moving at just a 97.7 rating this postseason, nearly 20 points below Cleveland’s 115.8 offensive efficiency and 5.3 points per 100 possessions worse than its own regular season clip.
Offensive efficiency is what decided this series against Boston. Atlanta came in thinking sweep, but Boston got a 42-point effort from Isaiah Thomas and a Herculean effort from Marcus Smart to take this to six games. “We knew it was going to be tough to sweep this team,” Bazemore said.
The Celtics clearly need to add more complimentary offense to Thomas in the off-season. Atlanta proved how a one-man slithering attack can only take you so far in the NBA. That’s why Thomas’s explosions this season were merely Allen Iverson-esque, but still far from The Answer himself. “We gotta get a lot better,” Stevens said. “It’s pretty evident.”