Atlanta squandered many an opportunity to pull out what would have been a big win in the Eastern Conference Playoff race over the Boston Celtics. Instead Atlanta failed to execute down the stretch and came up just short falling 88-86 in overtime.
If this game was truly a playoff preview then it showed three things that the Hawks absolutely must do better if they hope to advance out of the first-round of the playoffs should they meet the Celtics. Above all they must rebound and that begins at the starting point guard position and goes all the way through to the last guy sitting on the bench in uniform. Atlanta simply cannot afford to be hammered on the backboard by a 56-39 count against a Celtics team that is the worst rebounding team in the league. This doesn't fall on the shoulders of any one single player but is something that the entire team must do a much better job of if they hope to be successful.
Second Atlanta must take care of the basketball. Boston is one of the best teams in the league at executing offensively and the Hawks can ill-afford to give them extra possessions. Atlanta did a great job in the first half with only five turnovers and it wasn't a coincidence in my opinion that they had a 48-40 halftime lead. The Hawks turned it over eight times in the second half leading to 12 points for the Celtics which is huge in a two point loss. Jeff Teague and Josh Smith combined for 11 of Atlanta's 16 turnovers. That is way too many particularly when they are leading to easy buckets for the opposition.
Third and perhaps most important they must handle adversity. When I say that I am not necessarily talking about losing composure and getting caught up in the Celtics physicality although Josh Smith did get a technical late that hurt. What I am talking about is execution offensively when a team like Boston clamps down defensively. The Celtics are one of the best teams defensively in the league and do an outstanding job of taking things away from opposing teams.
I felt that the Hawks did a really good job for about three and a half quarters executing but there were too many wasted possessions late where the Hawks ended up taking the shot that the Celtics wanted them to take. It was apparent at the end that Boston wasn't going to allow Joe Johnson to even dribble the basketball late which is why Jannero Pargo found himself so open for the game-winning attempt at the end of regulation. If that is the case then it might not be the best strategy to force feed the ball into that situation. If the Hawks are going to beat the Celtics in a playoff series then they are going to have to get creative at crunchtime because it is going to be hard to force anything through Boston's defense.
Yet even with those three things, Atlanta was right there and lost a two point game in overtime in an opponent's gym with a playoff atmosphere. There are no moral victories at this point and the Hawks could very well end up as the sixth seed and be facing the Pacers instead of the Celtics in the first round. But Atlanta can take away from this game that had they shored up the turnovers or did a little better job on the boards the outcome would have likely been different. Marvin Williams and Kirk Hinrich both played pretty well defensively but neither did much of anything offensively which again leaves room for improvement. All of this without even mentioning 2-20 three-point shooting and 16-23 from the free throw line.
Jeff Teague led the way for the Hawks with 21 points and six assists but was also charged with the before mentioned five turnovers. Josh Smith added 20 points, 11 rebounds and five assists to go along with six turnovers. Smith missed a would be game winner three-point attempt on the Hawks final possession that I am not going to complain about whether or not he had a wide open Jeff Teague standing in the corner. However, six turnovers suggests the danger in letting your power forward initiate your offense.
Joe Johnson added 14 points but was 5-17 from the floor and 0-5 from three-point range. Zaza Pachulia turned in another solid effort with 13 points and seven rebounds.
For the Celtics Kevin Garnett finished with 22 points and 12 rebounds while Brandon Bass added 21 points and 10 boards. Paul Pierce finished with 14 points but was 6-19 from the floor. Rajon Rondo logged a triple-double in the game finishing with 10 points, 10 rebounds and 20 assists. However, the Hawks will live with holding Rondo to 3-16 shooting.
No doubt the team came away from this game disappointed but it is important that they put it behind them before Friday's game against Orlando.