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Tempers flare, Hawks falter late in physical bout against Celtics

It was a rough second half for the home team.

NBA: Boston Celtics at Atlanta Hawks Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Hawks (14-31) hosted the Boston Celtics (28-18) on Saturday night at State Farm Arena in what started out as a fast-paced, action-filled contest at the formerly-christened highlight factory. Quite a bit was going on for a game that featured only four total lead changes, with the score never being tied again following the first basket of the contest.

Head coach Lloyd Pierce went with a starting lineup of Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, DeAndre’ Bembry, John Collins and Dewayne Dedmon. Dedmon returned to the lineup after missing time with a left ankle sprain.

The Celtics went with a starting lineup of Kyrie Irving, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris and Al Horford. Gordon Hayward (personal) was unavailable off of the bench for Boston head coach Brad Stevens.

The home team jumped out early and scored 36 points in the first quarter, and 67 in the first half before mustering only 38 second-half points and ultimately falling 113-105 to visiting Boston despite leading by as many as 16 in the second quarter.

Quite simply, this is one the Hawks should have pulled out. They out-rebounded Boston 49-43, out-scored the Celtics in the paint 52-42 and out-assisted them 28-19, but once again struggled to take care of the ball with 20 turnovers. Those turnovers led to 14 points on the other end, contributing to the 24 fast-break points Boston came away with on the evening.

The home team started the game red hot, with 18 points in the first four minutes of play. The ball was moving, open shots were generated and Collins was flying through the lane like a mad-man.

Here’s a devastating put-back flush from Collins that opened the scoring for Atlanta and had the crowd in awe early.

Huerter was cooking early with 13 first-half points. Here’s a smooth step-back mid-range jumper from the rookie swingman.

The Hawks finished the opening period with 36 points and ten assists, but didn’t slow down in the second, as a 10-2 run early in the period put them up 50-34 just over 15 minutes in to the game.

Here’s a clip of some 2015-esque ball movement from Atlanta. Five passes lead to a wide open Huerter three-pointer.

More good ball movement just a few moments later, as Young nutmegs Tatum then Collins dumps off the dime to Dedmon.

Despite the blazing start for the opposition, Irving was able to will his team back into the game with 15 second-quarter points. The guard, who is having the best individual year of his career in 2018-19, shot 5-for-5 from the field and 3-for-3 from three-point-range for the period, adding on two free throws as well. Overall, Irving attempted ten shots in the second, and he made every single one of them. He finished the half with 23 points. The Hawks led the Celtics 67-60 at halftime.

It was a tale of two halves for the Hawks, as they shot only 33.3 percent (15-for-45) from the field as a team in the second half after a blistering start to the game. Boston ramped up the physicality and bullied the Hawks, forcing them to shoot several less-than-ideal looks from three-point-range down the stretch.

There was also this, some extracurricular activity early in the third quarter courtesy of none other than Smart, who has developed a bit of reputation for moments like this throughout his career — he was fined $25,000 for a preseason shoving match with J.R. Smith this past October and has paid more than $120,000 in total fines and suspensions throughout his career.

Smart ended up contacting an official while going at Bembry in a scrum that lingered well after the play and was promptly ejected from the game. A suspension is almost assuredly headed Smart’s way.

Bembry commented on the scuffle after the game: “That’s what he’ve obviously seen him do that plenty of times. Happens. Just trying to keep my cool and win the game”.

Following the incident, Atlanta struggled to find good looks and overall looked like a different group than what was out there in the first half. The Celtics’ change in physicality clearly effected the way the Hawks were trying to play.

Bembry commented on the difference in play as the game unfolded:

“We were just swinging the ball from side to side. Everybody was touching the ball, hitting some shots. Obviously, that always helps. We just kept it simple. Fourth quarter, they were being aggressive on us and we were on our heels.”

Pierce on the technical fouls, the Celtics’ physical second-half play, and the effect it had on the outcome of the game:

“I thought the tech was them just trying to be more physical and see if they could bother and effect what we were doing offensively. And for a moment I thought it worked. It did bother us. We sped ourselves up. We started to play … really, we didn’t execute for a couple possessions. I think the teaching point for all of our guys is at that moment, that’s really when we want to execute. We had them rattled. They’re trying to be physical. It’s a great opportunity to use their aggression to try and bait and get fouls. They shot 17 second-half free throws, I think we only had six. So it kept us on our heels. We stayed on the perimeter and that’s why we had 41 three-point attempts. We love shooting the three, but we also want to get to the foul line and get into the paint. We were unable to do that in the second half.”

A bad third quarter was followed by a worse final period from the hosts, as the Hawks collected only 16 points in the final 12 minutes. The Celtics relied on team play and physical defense in the second half, forcing the Hawks to mainly navigate from the perimeter down the stretch, as Pierce mentioned above. Georgia native Jaylen Brown had nine fourth-quarter points, helping seal the win for the visitors.

Irving was much quieter in the second half compared to the first, scoring just nine points, but he did hit this ridiculous left-handed hook-shot dagger after losing his footing to bury the Hawks with 1:11 to play.

Irving finished the night with 32 points (11-for-19 from the floor, 5-for-8 from three-point range) and also added five assists across his 37 minutes.

Huerter led the way in scoring for the Hawks with 18 points (7-for-18 from the field, 4-for-10 from three). The 20-year-old two-guard also had seven assists, four rebounds and three steals in 34 minutes.

Following the game, Irving was asked about Trae Young and his progression this season:

Young also had only good things to say about the Celtics star guard.

“You saw him,” Young said of Irving. “He’s one of the best point guards in our league. He’s one of the best one-on-one players in our league. He’s very shifty. He knows how to score from all three levels. He’s obviously one of the toughest guys to guard.”

The Atlanta Hawks will be back in action Monday afternoon at 3:00 pm ET against the Orlando Magic. The game will be broadcast on NBA TV as the entire league celebrates MLK Day with a full slate of games ranging from early afternoon well into the night. Orlando will enter State Farm Arena as losers of eight of their last 11 contests.