Everyone knew the crowd would be rocking in Boston, and that there would be great urgency, energy, and crispness of execution in a do-or-die Game Six in the Garden.
Few thought it would be Atlanta providing those attributes.
The Hawks were gritty, clean, and locked in on both ends of the court from the tip on Thursday night. Offensive balance and a veteran presence led Atlanta to a 104-92 win in Game 6, advancing them to the second round and closing out the series with Boston. Leading the charge were Al Horford with 15 points on 10 shots, Paul Millsap with 17 points on 10 shots, and Kyle Korver with 14 points on four shots. It’s hard to lose when your three best players are that efficient.
Atlanta did plenty of things right in this series: in all four of their wins, they assisted on more than 60 percent of their made baskets, including 26 assists on 38 makes on Thursday. All five starters scored in double figures Thursday, the recipe needed to beat the Boston Celtics and their aggressive defensive scheme. The Hawks constantly attacked Boston in screening actions and played through their dynamic duo up front in Horford and Millsap. It wasn’t always pretty, but Atlanta’s versatile offense was too much for the Celtics to conquer without Avery Bradley.
Game 6 had a bit of a scare for the Hawks early when Teague was an early sub out with ankle issues. He bounced in and out in the first quarter, leaving emotional and embattled backup Dennis Schroder to try and propel Atlanta to an early lead. Schroder responded with his best game of the series: 12 points and eight assists, finishing the night a plus-13.
The amount of allowed contact near the rim in the first quarter has been a theme throughout the postseason, not just in this series. That hurt the Celtics more than any other team in the first round: Atlanta’s big men stayed out of foul trouble, and Boston, the smallest and youngest team remaining, couldn’t get easy free throw chances to offset their shooting challenges.
Shooting 7-for-32 from three won’t cut it in a win-or-go-home contest, and 18 free throw attempts was far too few to compensate. In Games 3 and 4, the Celtics had a combined 45 points off turnovers in their two wins. Thursday night, the Celtics could only muster 16. Simply put, the Celtics never got it going.
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Brad Stevens tinkered with the lineup before Game 3 to give the Celtics a much-needed jolt. But doing so led to multiple challenges for their injury-depleted bench. In particular, Evan Turner starting next to Isaiah Thomas led to a lack of shot creation in second unit. Marcus Smart is a streaky offensive player and proved unready of stepping up to that challenge of carrying an offensive unit. While he showed flashes, his one assist is evidence of his challenges to incorporate others in that bench group and make those around him better. That second unit featured two rookies in Terry Rozier and R.J. Hunter, as well as an outmatched Jared Sullinger down low. Smart, Turner, and other smalls guarding Millsap or Horford became an issue due to their passing and the sharpshooting ability of Atlanta.
At the under-6 mark in the first quarter, the Celtics led 9-7 and subbed in Kelly Olynyk. One of Olynyk or Sullinger remained in the game until the 9:35 mark of the second quarter, after ceding a 20-10 Atlanta run. Olynyk and Sullinger struggled all series against the physicality and versatility of the Atlanta frontcourt. They couldn’t defend in transition and really struggled in switches. With the team’s two best frontcourt scorers essentially neutralized, there was too much pressure placed on the backcourt – the same backcourt missing their best defensive player in Avery Bradley.
These Atlanta big men – starters and bench players – can score from the outside, pass out of the post or from the perimeter, and are experts at reading screens. Amir Johnson, Jonas Jerebko, or smaller players were able to pressure their bigs on the perimeter without fear of being driven past or on switches. Sullinger and Olynyk? They ceded outside shots when scared of the drive, got burnt on dribble handoffs and high-speed screens with point guards, and were abused in transition by Horford in particular. Stevens seemed to pick his poison, icing all side handoff and ball screen actions to keep dribble penetration to a minimum. It allowed endless pick-and-pop opportunities to Horford and Scott. They responded by going a combined 10-for-21 from three in Atlanta’s four victories (while still a respectable 3-for-9 in losses).
Credit Mike Budenholzer and the Hawks for their simplicity in game plan and aggressiveness in their substitution patterns. Budenholzer spread the floor around their bigs whenever Sullinger or Olynyk entered the game, forcing guards to choose between helping at the rim or defending Atlanta’s strong three-point shooters from the corners. Coach Budenholzer then inserted Kyle Korver back into the lineup at the start of the second quarter, essentially daring the Celtics to either get crushed with their current strategy or go back to Crowder, Jerebko and Johnson before they received ample rest. Stevens chose to roll the dice with the latter, and it caught up to the Celtics while attempting yet another second-half comeback.
Down 14 just 90 seconds into the second-half, Stevens pulled out the adjustment to play two bigs alongside each other, putting Olynyk and Johnson on the court together. On the next possession for the Hawks, Al Horford hit in an uncontested three.
Stevens called a timeout immediately and went with a lineup of Crowder, Jerebko, Turner, Smart and Thomas–speed and chaos to create desperation. Foiled by Crowder’s fifth foul two minutes later, the Celtics simply ran out of strong defensive options to counter Atlanta’s arsenal. The Hawks killed Boston at the start of the second and fourth quarters with a fresh Korver and Horford – and Korver went through three quarters with only two field goal attempts, but his presence opened up room for Horford to operate.
In classic Celtics fashion, they wouldn’t go down without a fight. Stevens saved one last adjustment for the fourth quarter, dusting off Tyler Zeller and inserting him into a do-or-die situation. Zeller responded with eight points and four rebounds in the final frame.
After trailing by 28 in the fourth, Boston was able to cut the deficit to 12 with three minutes to play on the back of Jae Crowder’s outside shooting and quick bursts of offense from Isaiah Thomas and Marcus Smart. The Celtics couldn’t figure out how to stifle Atlanta’s offense during that stretch, and all that momentum came to a screeching halt with three minutes to play when Jae Crowder picked up his sixth foul and left the ball game.
The final three minutes were painful to watch for Celtics fans: lack of defensive execution, offense-and-defense substitutions between clutch time newbies Tyler Zeller and Terry Rozier, and Atlanta’s post players once again defending the rim in textbook fashion. Just like that, the Celtics ran out of time on another valiant comeback effort.
Atlanta’s defense was rarely mentioned during the series, mainly due to the Celtics’ short-handed personnel and the expectation their offense would struggle as a result. Coach Budenholzer was quick to commend his team’s defensive performance for the catalyst behind their advancing to the next round and generating easy offensive opportunities.
“You can’t go on a run unless you’re making stops,” he said. “I thought we made it difficult on them to score and get good looks. Everybody was rebounding, everybody contributed during those runs.”
Stevens acknowledged the team’s rough starts in his postgame presser. “It put a lot of pressure on us to play from behind and try to hit home runs,” he remarked. But Stevens’ commentary hit the nail right on the head when looking ahead to the Celtics’ future. “There’s two really tough tasks. One is getting to be a very good competitive team at a top 10-15 level on offense and defense… the next [task] is tough.”
The end of the road for the Celtics seemed like a poetic tribute to their season and, more specifically, their last few months. Short-handed and outmatched, they dug a hole for themselves early that was too deep to climb out of. Stevens went down swinging, trying every lineup combination or rotational adjustment he could. The Celtics simply could not shoot well enough from three to keep up with the fast pace and spacing the Hawks threw at them. It was a valiant fight, an incredible show of guts and determination in the fourth quarter, but it was too little too late.
Celtics fans will view this as only the beginning of what appears a bright future. Cap space, high draft picks and the luxury of the league’s most attractive young coach can upgrade the level of talent in a hurry. That optimism shouldn’t take away from the sting of another first round loss and the painful reality of having so many improvements necessary to be a true championship-caliber team. Nor should it take away from a season where their talents and efforts were both maximized.
As for the Hawks, they escape Beantown and head west to Cleveland, where they look for retribution against the best team in the East. Cleveland presents a completely different style than the Celtics: star-centric, able to score inside and fantastic on the offensive glass. Atlanta has played great basketball in their last eight quarters, and that momentum is crucial heading into the next round against a team to have swept them twice in postseason series.