Against the Atlanta Hawks, Boston won two games in Beantown with crazy, emotional, momentum-driven performances to get back into their series vs. Atlanta after falling behind 0-2. They got a David-slaying-Goliath-and-then-dancing-on-his-head performance from Isaiah Thomas in Game 3 and then a lights-out-roman-candle-bombardment from Marcus Smart in Game 4. The Celtics, who have not been a good offensive team in half-court settings, found hot shooting and reliable offense from unlikely places to even the series.
If Games 3 and 4 were the stuff of fairytale playoff legends, then Game 5 in Atlanta was a hard smack of reality right to the temple. We’re five games in this series, and here’s what we now know about it after the Hawks’ 110-83 demolition of Boston in Game 5.
1. If the Hawks even make a modicum of shots, they’re going to win this series. That’s really all this comes down to. In the Hawks’ two wins, they shot 41 percent from the field and 33 percent from the arc. That’s it. Not great. But enough. In their two losses, they shot 40 percent from the field, but more notably, only 26 percent from deep. Atlanta missed 30 uncontested shots in Game 4 according to NBA.com’s SportVU data. In Game 5, the Hawks shot 46 percent on such shots. The Celtics have shot more contested shots than uncontested in every game in this series, while the Hawks have shot more uncontested than contested in every game in this series. It just comes down to whether the Hawks make them. It’s really that simple.
2. The Celtics have no chance if Isaiah Thomas isn’t brilliant. Thomas scored 42 points in Game 3 and was the biggest reason for that victory. In Game 5, Thomas had seven points, going 3 for 12 from the field. To put that in perspective, Kris Humphries in garbage time had more points than Thomas in this game.
(Thomas also suffered a sprained ankle in the second half. It was reported as mild and Thomas said he’s good to go for Game 6.)
The Celtics have to force the defense to collapse with Thomas, and need him to be able to hit from the outside as well. Without that threat, the Hawks’ defense rotated and rotated and rotated while the Celtics kept trying to find ways to score and nothing happened. If the Celtics are going to advance, the 5-foot-9 Thomas has to play huge.
3. It’s a never-ending small-ball escalation. The Hawks play small-ish Al Horford at center (yes, he is a natural center, he has been playing the position for 10 years, don’t even start with this). So the Celtics countered with more guards and Crowder at the four during stints. Then in Game 5, the Hawks turned to Mike Scott at the four and Paul Millsap at the five, and scored 120 points per 100 possessions, which is effectively hotter than the sun.
The Celtics need more offense and their best chance of getting it is going small, but they’ve also skated by in this series — other than Paul Millsap’s 45-point, 13-rebound explosion in Game 4 — without getting too exploited by the bigger Horford and Millsap. How long can that last?
4. Once again, the Hawks just have to not make mistakes. It’s not that the Celtics’ defense isn’t good. It’s great. It’s just that the Hawks have smart players, willing and gifted passers, and can handle the ball. So when you see a stat like this, it puts the series in context:
In three Hawks victories in this series, the Celtics have scored 8.3 points per game off turnovers. In two Hawks losses, the Celtics have scored 22.5 points per game off turnovers.
I don’t mean to keep hammering this, but it’s inescapable when you watch the games or look at the data: If the Hawks simply shoot normal percentages and don’t turn the ball over, they will win. It is really that simple. The Celtics have to manufacture offense by using chaotic transition opportunities and fueling momentum. If the Hawks get back in transition and don’t allow them to create numbers in transition off turnovers, Boston just does not have the personnel or execution level to overcome them.
5. Never try zone again, Brad Stevens. When the Celtics jumped out to a big lead in Game 5, the Hawks were frozen. Everything was going the Celtics’ way. And Brad Stevens tried to form a bridge too far. He turned to zone in the second quarter, daring the Hawks to beat Boston with shooting.
Kent Bazemore helped the Hawks make 11 consecutive shots and take control of the game for good. Turns out there is a limit to how much you can dare a team full of good offensive players to beat you.
6. Kelly Olynyk is not 100 percent. The Celtics badly need the regular-season version of Olynyk in this series. He’s a big who can stretch the floor, contest inside, rebound and contain the pick and roll. Unfortunately, Olynyk is just a shell of himself due to his shoulder injury and the time he has been away. He’s just not the same guy he was in the regular season, and that hurts Boston big time, just as much if not more than Avery Bradley’s absence.
7. Kent Bazemore stays blazing. Sixteen points for Bazemore on 4-of-9 shooting from the arc. Bazemore scored 15 points per game in the regular season vs. Boston, and the Celtics still have no answer for him. Jae Crowder has too many other assignments, and the Celtics’ guards are having to help too much inside which leaves Bazemore open. And he’s making them pay.