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Hawks rally but can’t escape Thomas, Celtics

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Tim Hardaway Jr. led a charge in the fourth, but the Atlanta Hawks came up just short in a 103-101 loss to the Boston Celtics.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Atlanta Hawks Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Hawks pulled off a wild second half rally Friday night erasing a 20-point deficit before falling late thanks to an Isaiah Thomas dagger with just 2.4 seconds remaining.

The loss snapped Atlanta’s seven-game winning streak and dropped them 2.5 games behind the Celtics in the standings but there were plenty of positives that they can take from this game and hopefully build on in the future.

“To come back from....we were in a pretty big hole there....that group kind of found a way to, defensively and offensively, give ourselves a chance,” Mike Budenholzer told reporters after the game.

“They played better for more of the 48 minutes than we did. We had a 15-minute stretch were a lot of things on both ends of the court, we did pretty well. But for the rest of the game....they shot it well. They moved it well. They did a lot of things. It was a heck of a comeback. It was a heck of a game. We’ll learn from it. We’ll be better going forward.”

The first and third quarters were problematic for Atlanta as the Celtics hit them with a barrage of three-point shots. Boston knocked down 8 of 14 attempts in the first quarter to jump out to a 28-18 lead at the end of one. After the Hawks fought back in the second to trail 48-44 at the half, the Celtics knocked down five more three-pointers to push the lead to as many as 20 points.

“I thought the start of the first quarter and start of the third quarter were carbon copies,” Budenholzer said. “A lot of made three’s. Some were good looks. Some were tough ones. They executed well. Then in the second quarter, end of the third and in the fourth quarter, we were able to get the three-point line a bit under control.

To Atlanta’s credit, they fought back and received a contribution from an unlikely group. Boston led 77-57 with 3:02 remaining in the third when Budenholzer opted to throw the newly acquired Mike Dunleavy Jr. into the game for the first time. The Hawks closed the quarter with 8-1 run to cut the deficit to 78-65 entering the fourth.

With momentum in hand, Budenholzer stuck with the reserves in the fourth.

“The end of the third quarter, which is normally when we have the second group in. I thought they cut it from 20 to 13 going into the fourth quarter,” Budenholzer said of the decision to ride the bench down the stretch. “They started the fourth quarter with a good rhythm. They were just playing well. So we just rode that group. They gave us our best chance. We went a little smaller, spread them out, a little more athleticism. At least for a certain stretch, that was helpful.”

Tim Hardaway Jr. and Malcolm Delaney combined for 25 points in the fourth quarter and nearly saved Atlanta by themselves. Hardaway scored 15 of his team-high 23 points in the fourth including a three-pointer with just 49 seconds remaining that cut a six-point Celtics lead in half.

“We dug ourselves a big hole in the third. At the start of the fourth, we just wanted to cut the lead as the game progressed,” Hardaway said after the game. It got close at the end and we had an opportunity to come back and win. The last play didn’t go that well. But we did show heart. We got stops on the defensive end. Isaiah Thomas did what he does best, and that’s make big shots.”

Paul Millsap connected on a game-tying three with just 25.6 remaining, but Thomas waved off a time out from his coach Brad Stevens and proceeded to hit the game winner with just 2.4 seconds remaining. Thomas was a thorn in Atlanta’s side for the entire night finishing with a game-high 28 points to go along with nine-assists.

It was a tough game to lose for the Hawks who clearly had this one circled on their calendars coming in. The much anticipated first matchup between Al Horford and Dwight Howard never really developed. Horford finished with 10 points, six rebounds and six assists while Howard tossed in 11 points and eight rebounds but sat the entire fourth quarter when the Hawks went small.

Atlanta will enjoy an off day on Saturday before facing an interesting back-to-back that features a pair of afternoon starts. The Hawks will host the Milwaukee Bucks on Sunday at 3 p.m. and then fly to New York for a 1 p.m. matchup on MLK Day against the Knicks.