The first game of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals wasn’t even a playoff game. It was a thrashing in the playoffs. After one quarter, Boston led by 10 points. They were up by 30 points at the half. Atlanta’s two-quarter three-point percentage is 6.3%. Sure, the Hawks cut the margin to 19 at the conclusion of the third quarter, and they cut it to 12 at one point in the fourth. It’s a big thing. All it accomplished was keep Luke Kornet from seeing playoff action.
If the Celtics’ 57-win regular season wasn’t enough of a reminder, Saturday was. Do you want to cause offence? Three starters for the Celtics scored at least 24 points. Robert Williams came off the bench and scored 12 points. Jaylen Brown led all scorers with 29 points. Jayson Tatum contributed 25 points. Boston fired 47.7% from the field and 39.4% from three-point range. That enormous rebounding advantage the Hawks had against Miami in the play-in game? On the glass, Boston defeated Atlanta 58-45.
“I liked our intentionality,” Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla said. “In particular, in the first half.” We obviously had a dip in the third quarter, but I think we continued playing. We persevered in our efforts to break through the lethargy. I believed we had made enough plays. That’s great; we now know we can play better.”
Boston was the NBA’s third most efficient defensive team during the regular season. Atlanta made 38.8% of their three-point attempts. They took 29 three-pointers… and hit five of them. “One of those nights,” Dejounte Murray said. Three Celtics, Al Horford, Derrick White, and Marcus Smart, each had two blocks. Murray and Trae Young, the Hawks’ offensive motors, combined to shoot 15-43 from the field.
“We’ve got to make some shots,” Young remarked. “I believe we have some terrific looks. The shots simply weren’t falling. When situations like that happen, we need additional pauses.”
Young is a pity. He scored 25 points in Atlanta’s play-in victory. He needed 18 shots to get 16 points in Game 1. Young might have a rough series. Whether it’s Smart, White, or Malcolm Brogdon, he’ll have an excellent defender in front of him for the most of his minutes. Young’s first five shots were all missed. He didn’t hit his lone three-pointer until the second quarter. Boston, on the other hand, pursued him at every chance. Young was the only starter to play just six minutes in the fourth quarter.
“We took some lumps today,” Hawks coach Quin Snyder said. “Get back and go after it on Tuesday.”
An optimist in Atlanta will see the second half, when the Hawks outscored the Celtics 55-38, as cause to be optimistic. “A lot of that,” Jayson Tatum said, “was self-inflicted.”
Even Snyder said that it’s tough to stay focused when a team develops a huge halftime lead. “Each game is its own story,” Brown said. “So we expect them to take their best shot each game.”
The truth is that the Celtics are really good. Excellent work. Better than Atlanta, in fact. Maybe better than everyone else. Boston has had a peculiar year. The squad loses its head coach in a scandal just days before training camp, yet the first two months of the season go off without a hitch. They faced some difficulty in the second half that placed Mazzulla under the microscope (chews too much gum, doesn’t call enough timeouts), but they persevered. They had the greatest winning percentage (.695) since Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce donned green.
Atlanta will outperform in Game 2. But Boston will as well. Tuesday’s game will be “nationally” aired on NBATV, which is where the NBA sends games that they hope you’ll care about but understand if you don’t. The Celtics will face tests in the near future. Just not till the following round, most likely.
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