In a showdown between the Atlanta Hawks and the Boston Celtics, Atlanta won a major victory in their march to the third seed 118-107. Both teams entered the game tied for third place in the Eastern Conference, so the win gave Atlanta sole possession of the seed.
One name echoed throughout the Atlanta locker room: Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas. The current All-Star guard is finishing what may end up being an All-NBA season. The Hawks knew that holding Thomas in check would be a tall task, but it was necessary to win.
While most of the talk around the Celtics locker room focused on Hawks forward Kyle Korver, Atlanta’s sharp shooter, the Celtics’ defense was able to hold Korver scoreless throughout the entire first half.
Led by the strong play of guards Kent Bazemore and Dennis Schroder, the Hawks jumped out to an early lead. Schroder led the Hawks in the first quarter with eight points. While Celtics guard Marcus Smart has been called out for his prolonged shooting slump, he roared back in the late first quarter with two consecutive three-pointers to help the Celtics get back in the game. With the clock ticking, Schroder chucked up a deep buzzer-beating three-pointer to give the Hawks a 34-32 lead at the end of the first quarter.
The Celtics regained the lead in the early part of the second quarter. Nevertheless, the Hawks tied the game up at 48 with a three from forward Paul Millsap. Then, Hawks All-Star center Al Horford put up a layup and three-pointer to give the Hawks a comfortable five-point lead. Millsap, dominating both sides of the floor, was one rebound short of a double-double in the first half alone. The first half was all about offense, with both teams ending the half shooting better than 50 percent from the field.
With four three-pointers, Smart led the Celtics with 14 points in the first half. Smart had more points in just the first half than he had in the last nine games. Hawks guard Jeff Teague led the team with 16 points and five assists in the first half.
Right at the beginning of the second half, the change of pace was palpable. Whereas the first half was dominated by offense, the second took on a much more punishing and bruising style of play. Trading threes for aggressive moves to the paint, the Celtics’ lead rose as high as 12 points in the third quarter. However, Millsap and Korver brought the Hawks back to take a two-point lead with 33 seconds to go in the third quarter.
The Celtics managed to settle themselves, though, thanks to some great defensive play. To the Celtics’ dismay, two points was as close as the game would get. The Hawks quickly responded by taking a seven-point lead with 3:20 left in the game. The Celtics did not score for a span of almost three and half minutes in the late fourth quarter, allowing the Hawks to build a commanding lead. The Hawks’ strong finish allowed them to claim what could be a very important game in the battle for the third seed.
After allowing 71 first half points, the Hawks’ defense stifled the Celtics’ offense, allowing only 36 second half points. After shooting well over 55 percent in the first, the Celtics barely managed to shoot 31 percent from the field in the second half.
When asked about their collapse in the second half, Celtics Head Coach Brad Stevens said, “We ran out of shots quicker than they did.”
While Stevens would not fault fatigue for the lack of second half productivity, the Hawks clearly noticed the toll a back-to-back took on the Celtics.
Bazemore, who finished with 21 points, acknowledged his own fatigue coming off an injury, but believed the rest really helped him. Bazemore commented, “It’s amazing what one game of rest can do for you.”
With all the talk of playoff readiness, both teams look to solidify home-court advantage and the necessary rest to prepare for what will definitely be a competitive playoff atmosphere.
The Hawks will retake the court on Monday, April 11 when they play the Cleveland Cavaliers in Cleveland, in what very well could be a preview of a second round playoff matchup.