ATLANTA — Jeff Teague opened the game with a 3-pointer. Kent Bazemore knocked in a 3. Teague hit Al Horford for an alley-oop dunk, and then Kyle Korver finally joined this first-round series by rediscovering his shot, hitting four 3s in the first six-plus minutes.
Before the notoriously late-showing Atlanta crowd had even settled into Philips Arena, the Hawks had exploded for a 24-3 lead on the Boston Celtics to open Game 2.
This looked like last season, when the Hawks spaced the court and flung the ball all over and knocked down outside shots better than anyone else in the Eastern Conference en route to 60 wins.
Except these 2015-16 Hawks are different. This squad can smother and suffocate even one of the best-coached teams in the NBA into a historically putrid offensive outing.
Much more impressive than the Hawks’ offensive burst to start the game was their stifling defense, which held Boston to seven first-quarter points, the fewest in the NBA’s shot-clock era. Atlanta’s 89-72 victory felt like a choke hold on the Celtics, who are down 2-0 in a series that many thought might be the most evenly matched in the postseason.
“They way outplayed us in every category in the first quarter,” said Boston coach Brad Stevens, who must go back to the drawing board with the kind of desperation that Wile E. Coyote experienced with the Road Runner. “I thought that was one team playing at a very elite level.”
Stevens added, “I think that tonight had a different feel than even the other night [in Game 1]. The other night it was one of those nights where we didn’t shoot it [well at first], like we had done some really good things and then once we started making shots we felt really good about our chances. Here, it never felt like we were at their level.”
In an era of basketball designed to open everything up so that offenses can flow freely, launch 3s at an insane pace and get out and run and dunk as if Don Nelson created the rules, the Hawks have added an old-school element to Mike Budenholzer’s read-and-react offense: a stingy, no-frills defense.
At some point between last season’s magical run to the Eastern Conference finals and this season, Budenholzer got the Hawks to buy into defense even more.
“If you look at our team, we want to get up and run and shoot 3s,” said Horford, who had 17 points and five blocks. “[But] one of the things [Budenholzer] has harped on all year is making sure our defense is there. Some nights, like tonight, we couldn’t score. But our defense carried us.
“Teams have kind of figured out what we are doing and made adjustments and made it harder on us [offensively]. So we have had to look at other ways.”
The result is a team that made some defensive history on Tuesday night even with its top perimeter defender from a year ago, DeMarre Carroll, now in Toronto.
With former Hawks finger-wagger Dikembe Mutombo looking on, Atlanta blocked 15 shots, sixth-most by any team in playoff history since 1984-85. And this is without a single 7-footer who plays in the rotation.
“They are doing what they do,” Stevens said. “They fly around. They are very physical on cuts. They get under a lot of things, made us make shots and jammed the paint on our drives and protected the rim like they have done in this whole stretch where they have been the best defense in the league.”
Stevens, of course, had to try to figure out how to muster any offense without two key contributors, Avery Bradley and Kelly Olynyk.
Now, going into a must-have Game 3, he will have to find a way to beat the Hawks in the first quarter. One of the biggest differences in this series has been Atlanta’s ability to start each game with a big lead.
So far, the Hawks have outscored the Celtics 54-26 in the first quarter. During the two opening periods, the Hawks held Boston to 10-for-49 shooting, including a nightmarish 1-for-15 from behind the 3-point arc.
While the Celtics stormed back and erased a 19-point second-quarter deficit in Game 1 before losing 102-101, Boston could not get to within single digits after falling behind by 21 in the first quarter.
So even though the Hawks failed to score for the last 5:27 of the first quarter and the last 3:53 of the second quarter, Atlanta’s defense just kept tightening. The Celtics couldn’t make shots and could barely run, scoring just eight fast-break points.
Boston tried going small, with Evan Turner starting the second half for Jared Sullinger, but nothing worked. Boston didn’t hit its second 3-pointer of the night until 3:32 remained in the third. And the Celtics didn’t break 50 points until 9:33 to go in the game.
Atlanta harassed Isaiah Thomas into 4-of-15 shooting. Marcus Smart, who started with Bradley out, went 1-for-11. Jae Crowder went 1-for-9.
While Korver did find his range, the Hawks’ offense wasn’t exactly Golden State-like. The Hawks shot 39 percent and didn’t crack 90 points.
Atlanta can be downright boring. The Hawks don’t have a superstar who plays above the rim or does anything flashy. And that’s just fine for now.
“If we don’t score 105 points or shoot 40 from 3 or 50 from the floor, so be it,” Bazemore said. “If we shoot 17 percent and win, we will be happy. … As long as our defense stays true.”
Asked about not being flashy, Bazemore said, “It is just extra-pass basketball.”
And, so far, extraordinary defense.