For 24 minutes, it appeared as if the Atlanta Hawks would pick up a breezy victory in Game 1 of their first round series against the Boston Celtics. For the next 24 minutes, it was an exercise in danger, but the Hawks won the crunch time battle to pick up a 102-101 victory to take a 1-0 series lead.
From the opening tip, Atlanta's defense was locked in. Though the offense was slow to start, the Hawks were able to build a quick 9-2 lead on the strength of holding Boston to just 1 of their first 7 from the field. Throughout the first quarter, it was much of the same story, as the Celtics struggled mightily with their shooting and the Hawks came on with explosive offense. Though it was accompanied with some odd rotation management from Mike Budenholzer, everything clicked (including 8 assists) for the home team and the Hawks held a 30-19 lead after the first 12 minutes.
The onslaught kept coming in the second quarter and, again, it was the defense in the driver's seat. Boston continued to settle for open jump shots, but given the outside trouble of the visitors, that played directly into the hands of the Hawks. On the whole, it was a masterful defensive half from the Hawks, holding the Celtics to just 23% shooting from the field and 12.5% shooting from three, and to make matters worse for the opponent, Boston mustered only 9 assists when compared to 7 turnovers.
That concoction led to a 51-34 halftime lead for the Hawks, and Atlanta led by as many as 19 prior to the break. Every member of the starting lineup posted a rating of +11 or better before halftime, and with "only" 44% shooting from the field and 30% from three, it was nice to see the Hawks in control using their highly underrated defense.
Seemingly on cue, though, the third quarter belonged to the Celtics. Boston closed the gap in a big way with an 11-2 run to climb within a 54-45 margin, and they continued to chip away at the lead until it was withered to just five points. Then, Mike Scott and Paul Millsap connected on back to back threes (with Millsap's coming via the old-fashioned variety) to stop the bleeding and preserve the advantage at 69-58. The Celtics would continue to scratch and claw as the quarter evaporated, coming within a seven-point spread after 36 minutes, but Atlanta did "survive" the push for the most part.
Boston, predictably, wouldn't go away and that manifested in the form of a 9-0 run in the early going of the fourth quarter. The spurt featured three-point connections from Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder and, more importantly, it led to the Celtics taking an 83-80 lead. As you may expect, there was much trepidation in the building, but cooler hands prevailed for the Hawks, as Atlanta quickly reclaimed the lead at the free throw line and set up a back-and-forth grind in crunch time.
The Hawks pushed forward with four straight points, punctuated by a Millsap dunk, to take a 92-88 lead with less than three minutes remaining. Then, Isaiah Thomas answered with free throws on the other end, but Jeff Teague (yet again) got to the rim and finished to preserve the four-point cushion. After a phantom foul that gave Boston a point at the line, Al Horford added two free throws for Atlanta, and that gave the Hawks a nice 96-91 lead with just 1:33 on the clock.
With the opportunity to virtually clinch a victory, the Hawks (Teague, more specifically) turned the ball over in inexplicable fashion, leading to a Celtics layup and new life for the visiting team at 96-93. Kyle Korver (who struggled mightily throughout the day with a 1-for-10 shooting performance) came up empty on the ensuing possession, but when the Hawks needed a stop in the worst way, Evan Turner came through with a missed three and Al Horford secured a significant rebound.
From there, it was a test of free throw shooting that the Hawks (marginally) passed. Kent Bazemore made three of four shots (over two possessions) from the charity stripe to provide Atlanta with a 99-93 lead with 25.7 seconds remaining, and after a quick bucket from Isaiah Thomas, Teague connected on one of two attempts to keep the margin at five with 15.8 seconds on the clock.
Jae Crowder then knocked down an improbable three to give Boston some life at 100-98 with a few seconds remaining, but Teague finished things off with two crucial free throws to preserve the win. Of course, Isaiah Thomas wouldn't be stopped in the end, knocking down a (meaningless) three, but the final score reflected what was certainly a narrow 102-101 win.
Though much of the credit for the victory should go to the first half defensive performance, it was the showing of both Jeff Teague and Al Horford that proved to be significant on this night. Teague provided a steady hand when compared to his backup in Dennis Schröder (who was ghastly), and the point guard finished with 23 points and 12 assists in the game. As for Horford, the big man was everywhere for the duration of the game, protecting the paint effectively on the defensive end and finishing with 24 points and 12 rebounds.
The Hawks did not play a perfect game by any means, and they especially did not play particularly well after halftime. In the playoffs, getting a win is all that matters, though, and they managed to do just that in Game 1.