After a difficult loss to the Cavs last night, the Celtics were eager to get on to the next game. The fans and team had good reason to be confident, too, as Boston has consistently succeeded in the vaunted back-to-back’s on their schedule. While they had played 17 in total, the Celtics have lost both games just once all season.
The Hawks weren’t going to take this loss laying down, though. Atlanta had won just twice in the past 11 games and were fighting to maintain a playoff birth in the remaining games. They were playing for their playoff lives. In other words, the Hawks played with an urgency through out the entirety of the game that the Celtics simply couldn’t match. Hawks win, 123-116.
While many may have believed the Celtics would come out and dominate the game from jump street – this wasn’t the case. They were all too content to shoot the long ball and, aside from the occasional Avery Bradley attempt dropping in, they simply weren’t succeeding. It got ugly.
Eventually the Hawks went on a 12-0 run. The Celts were stunned, and Marcus Smart was visibly upset on the court. He swung his arm aggressively and one can only imagine what he was saying to the bench. Some may not like the outburst, but when the man responds the way Smart did you can’t complain about it. He ended the drought via the deep ball with about 2 minutes left, then when Atlanta answered with a bucket of their own, Smart put a bow on the quarter with another 3. After the Hawks had stretched their lead to a max of 14, the Celtics were now down just 32-24.
The 2nd quarter didn’t look promising to begin, either. When Olynyk missed yet another 3 attempt, Crowder grabbed the Offensive Rebound (yay!) only for Amir Johnson to get called for an Offensive 3-Second Violation (boo!). Jae Crowder came in to save the offense with a pair of 3’s to now total 15 on the half which, frankly, was good to see from him. Feels like it’s been a while.
Aside from watching Jae Crowder supplement IT’s 16pts, the only other positive to take from the half would be Marcus Smart making 3 of 6 from deep. That’s still too many shots from 3 point land for my liking, but at least he was making them tonight. On the other side of things, there was nothing positive about what happened on defense for the Celtics in this half. Boston gave up 9 offensive rebounds that resulted in 16 points for the Hawks, but none louder than Princes’ tip-slam towards the end of half. Prince may have led the way offensively but the truth is ALL of the Hawks were feeling it tonight – a total of 9 different players scored in the 2nd quarter alone.
“Allowing Taurean Prince to explode for 18pts is unacceptable. Allowing the opposing team to shoot 54.2% from the field in the half is UNACCEPTABLE.” – that’s a little how I imagine Brad Steven’s halftime speech went since the Celtics went into the locker room down a whopping 71-55.
A final takeaway halfway through the game would be how Isaiah Thomas isn’t drawing the calls that he normally gets. The defense is ramping up the physical pressure on him to deny him the ball, then when he finally gets to the rim he’s being bodied down while the refs swallow their whistles perhaps in preparation for the Playoffs. This is just a small sample of what Isaiah and the Celtics can assume will occur come the postseason, so they might as well adjust to the lack of calls now. Ironically enough, once Isaiah finally got his call on a drive at the end of the second quarter, it cost him landing awkwardly on his heel. If he gets injured on a drive, the opponents get their wish. He played with a small limp for the remaining minute in the first half, and then seemed to be attending to it while on the bench during parts of the second, so this is definitely something to keep an eye on going forward.
I’m going to be honest with you, the 3rd quarter didn’t get prettier for the Celtics, guys. They relied on a quick 5 point outburst from Crowder to get their offense going in the half, but the defense still couldn’t seem to get it together. Boston remained chipping away at the Hawks lead, but seemed to be consistently stonewalled upon coming within 15 points of Atlanta.
At least once per game I find myself thinking “that was a TERRIBLE call against Marcus Smart”, and that occurred during the 3rd quarter tonight as the Hawks crossed half-court. Unlike most players, Smart actually turned his body square and was ready to guard the man in transition. Apparently the ref didn’t feel like having to watch somebody play defense, though, because the whistle was blown once Bazemore came within a few feet of Smart. Shame on Marcus for attempting to stop the ball in transition. Shame.
This didn’t discourage the defensive effort, though. Smart and the rest of the squad turned up the heat during the final minutes of the 3rd quarter. This extra effort, plus Crowder’s layup prior to Smart’s buzzer-beating 3 at the end of the quarter, allowed the team to surge within 10 points going into the 4th. With this combination of consistent Celtics offense and a ratcheted up defensive energy, this was the first quarter the Celtics had won, outscoring 34-28 in the 3rd. Still – in total, the Celtics trailed the Hawks 89-99 heading into the 4th.
The Celtics defensive effort hadn’t turned down one bit to begin the 4th, but unfortunately the Hawks began to match it. While the prior three quarters had been an offensive clinic for both teams, the defense apparently finally came to play at the start of the 4th quarter. After just over 3 minutes into the final frame, the two teams had combined to hit just 1 of 11 shots.
They both had eventually shaken off the rust and traded blows like a couple of heavyweights at the end of the match just looking for the knockout. The Celtics, of course, were looking for the crack in the offensive foundation of the Hawks that could finally allow the team’s transition game to come pouring through. The Hawks, meanwhile, struggled to find their footing with the uppercut – and couldn’t find a way to put away the ball-hawking Celtics. At one point, Smart picks a Hawks players pocket and then dishes a beautiful pass to Avery Bradley cutting to the basket in transition. This got the Celtics to within 6 points, but they wouldn’t get much closer. Boston ultimately lost to Atlanta, 123-116.
Missing 6 free throws down the stretch could easily be the winner here, but I’ll opt instead for something that pissed me off for a longer amount of time. The Celtics defense through 3 quarters was infuriating. They made the Hawks look like an unstoppable force when in reality they average just over 102 points per game on the season. That’s good enough for 22nd in the NBA. Guess how much the D gave up to the Hawks through the end of the 3rd quarter? 99 points! That’s more than Dallas averages IN THE ENTIRE GAME this year. Defense wins championships and these guys are a LONG way from that. Clean it up, guys.
Tonight’s “Daily Awesome Thing” really shouldn’t go to Isaiah. He had a couple of nice passes in the 2nd half that maybe could warrant the award, but none of them really blew anybody away.
Instead I’m going to do something a bit unorthodox. This award is going to go to Marcus Smart for his performance beyond the arc tonight. He finished by hitting 5 of 9, but the one that brought the Celtics within 10 points heading into the 4th was enormous for momentum. This brought the Celtics past the 15-point-stonewall and nearly allowed for them to tie it up in the final quarter. Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be, but Smart’s bounce back shooting night should be celebrated after the stretch he’s been on lately.
Jae Crowder came to play tonight. I’m the farthest thing from a believer in the plus/minus stat, but it says something when you’re one of just four players on your team that registered a net positive. And while Jae finished with a +12, the next closest man (Jaylen Brown? Sure.) finished with a +5. Again, if you’re not a true believer in that stat like myself, then look at his FG%. Crowder was 9 of 14 from the field including 4 of 7 from deep. He played like peak Jae Crowder, and that’s good news heading into the playoffs.
Isaiah Thomas 35 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 4/8 from 3
Jae Crowder 24 points, 4 rebounds, FG 64.3%
Tim Hardaway Jr. 23 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists FG 58.8%
Paul Millsap 26 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists