Trae Young led the Hawks (without John Collins) with 31 points — despite sustaining an ankle injury in the first half — Bogdan Bogdanovic added 25 points off of the bench.
For the Celtics, Jayson Tatum poured out 33 points and, in the absence of Jaylen Brown after just three minutes, Grant Williams and Derrick White added 18 points.
With Brown going down very early in this game, the Hawks received a fortunate break in terms of the game, and pushed to build a double-digit lead in the first quarter as the second unit did a fantastic job at the end of the first quarter and again in the second quarter to build a strong lead before Young returned to the game.
The Hawks took a 14 point lead into the locker-room, putting them in a strong position to begin the second half and, should they start the half the right way, could potentially put the game into more dangerous territory as something as simple as a stop and two threes could put the Hawks up by 20 points, putting a very different twist on the game.
However, it wasn’t the Hawks who imposed their will on the third quarter; it was the Celtics. The home side began the third quarter on a 14-0 run to eradicate the Hawks’ lead entirely, the Hawks unable to score in almost five minutes. Of course, once the Celtics evened the game, there was a lot of game still to play but it’s unquestionably where the momentum shifted as within a matter of minutes it was an even game again, as opposed to the Hawks holding the Celtics at arm’s length.
Let’s take a look at how the Hawks allowed a 14 point lead to slip within a matter of minutes.
The Hawks had the first opportunity to get on the board with Young but his long-range three after Al Horford switches onto him is missed:
The Celtics begin their comeback as Horford is switched onto by Kevin Huerter, who Clint Capela covers for but Robert Williams gets ahead of Danilo Gallinari and Horford’s missed shot is picked up and converted by Williams:
Horford imposed himself defensively immediately afterwards as he’s credited with the block on De’Andre Hunter’s shot as he gets a hand in on Hunter’s attempted free-throw line jumper:
The Celtics go the other way and Hunter, who had a difficult night, commits the foul on Tatum as he finishes with the left-hand:
12 months ago this next play may have been enough to maintain the Hawks’ advantage but now Young is called for the offensive foul as he leans into Marcus Smart on the perimeter; instead of three free throws, Young is called for the offensive foul:
Smart would then go on to exploit the Hawks in the pick-and-roll, using the separation from Huerter to score at the rim, leading to a Hawks timeout, their lead now down to seven points following a 7-0 run:
The timeout did little to change the Hawks’ fortunes as Gallinari’s shot is challenged by Tatum and the shot is missed:
Gallinari isn’t able to effectively close-out himself on the Celtics’ next possession as the ball is delivered to Horford in the corner following the pick-and-roll and the former Hawk hits the three:
The Hawks arguably get their best look of the third quarter so far as Young gets to the baseline, fires the ball out to the perimeter where it moves to Hunter, whose three is short:
The Hawks finally get themselves a stop but are unable to take advantage as Young — who gets the switch he wants on Horford — is unable to shake Horford and Horford contests the shot well as Young spins away:
Again, the Celtics punish the Hawks for their missed opportunities as Tatum comes off of the screen, gets the switch on Gallinari and hits the free throw line jumper to reduce the lead to just two points:
The Hawks’ drought continues as Huerter’s late-clock fadeaway is contested as the Celtics’ foreboding defense tightens in the third quarter:
After an offensive rebound on a missed Tatum three, the Celtics collect the offensive rebound and Tatum attacks again, drawing the foul and free throws to complete the Celtics’ comeback:
This Hawks side has obviously blown quite a number of leads/games this season (including their last visit to Boston) but to undo all of their great work in the second quarter within the first few minutes of the third quarter is extremely disappointing, especially given the Celtics were already without Brown for essentially all of the game.
The Celtics went on to outscore the Hawks 31-13 in the third quarter, with Derrick White igniting somewhat in the third and stepped up in the absence of Brown both offensively and defensively. In the fourth quarter, the Hawks were unable to find their momentum again and a block from Smart on Hunter began an ultimately costly run for the Hawks as Grant Williams would go on to hit back-to-back threes to push the lead to 14 points to essentially end the game.
Postgame, Hawks head coach Nate McMillan felt his side settled in the second half and their aggression went through regression and how this was reflected in their free throw attempts.
“Really felt like the last game here,” said McMillan postgame of the third quarter. “They came out aggressive, looking to attack. I thought we got back on our heels and settled for the long-ball. We had 16 free throw attempts in that first half and we come away with 24 free throw attempts. I don’t even count four of them because they were in the last minute, so we really only had four free throw attempts in that second half. With their defense you have to attack. We did a good job in that first half being aggressive, attacking the basket, attacking the paint, getting to the free throw line, putting the pressure on their defense. The second half I thought we settled on the long-ball.”
The Hawks shot just 2-of-16 from three in the second half compared to the 5-of-15 that they shot in the first half. Even that difference of three three-pointers between the first and second halves; that would have been enough to even the game in theory (the Hawks losing by nine points in the end).
Young scored 22 points in the first half on 8-of-12 shooting from the field but found himself limited in the second half, scoring just nine points on 4-of-13 shooting.
“They did a lot of switching,” said Young of the Celtics’ defensive adjustments. “I think we bailed them out and let them off the hook by taking some shots and obviously didn’t attack like we did in the first half and we missed some easy shots and shots if we had back we’d make. You’ve got to capitalize because a team like that can explode and that’s what they did.”
Young noted his ankle felt a little stiff coming out of the locker-room and hopes it won’t stiffen too much in between games here but it did seem to be little more apparent in the second half and reflected somewhat in his attempted shots in the second half (as well as the Celtics packing the paint a little more in the second half).
Nate McMillan commented further on the Hawks’ apparent settling in the second half, making an interesting comment on how the Hawks are taking ‘the best shot they feel they have’ whereas he would like to see the Hawks be a bit more aggressive.
“They are out there with the basketball and we know the game-plan,” said McMillan on settling. “The plan is to put the ball in the basket. I think what they’re feeling is they have a shot they can make and that’s the shot they’re taking. I think we can be more patient and be more aggressive, look to get to the rim. They are out there playing, they have the ball, we know the game-plan and when you have that ball you’ve got to make a play. If you feel that shot is a good shot for you at that moment, that’s what they’re doing; they’re taking those shots. I think at this time of the year you have to be aggressive in getting to the basket, getting to the free throw line.”
The Hawks scored just 16 points in the paint in the second half, and eight of those came from Bogdanovic, who did show aggression in driving into the paint and had some success there.
The typically honest Bogdanovic — who scored 25 points on 10-of-16 shooting from the field (his only missed coming from three-point range) — pulled no punches in his postgame assessment of the Hawks.
“Defense, offensive execution, transition, one-on-one; they got whatever they wanted and they showed us what a good team looks like,” began Bogdanovic, before going to sum up what sort of team the Hawks are in their failure to capitalize on their own lead and the absence of Jaylen Brown.
“When you’re up 15 and they lose one of the top-two guys on the team and you’re not able to win that game, you’re not a good team,” said Bogdanovic.
“Nothing needs to change,” said Bogdanovic when asked what needed to change. “We cannot just change it ... we lost that identity, how to win the games. Just going through the flashes of the second half, De’Andre Hunter is guarded by Williams. With all due respect, he’s a great defender, but I don’t think he can guard him. We executed badly. We didn’t look through to find a way to win the game.”
Bogdanovic referenced Hunter, who struggled very notably offensively, scoring just four points on 0-of-8 shooting from the field.
“Tonight he couldn’t find his shot,” said McMillan of Hunter. “Guys go through periods where maybe the shot isn’t falling. A couple of weeks ago he was shooting the ball well. I think you have some games where you don’t have that rhythm and you have to get in the gym and work on it.”
The Hawks were already without Collins in this contest and soon found themselves without Onyeka Okongwu, who played just seven minutes last night before being ruled out due to a concussion evaluation.
“He had symptoms so we had to hold him out,” said McMillan of Okongwu.
“It got to a point where we were looking around and we didn’t know where O went,” said Young of missing Okongwu. “We were kind of confused at that point, I think Coach was at a point where he looked down the bench and didn’t see him. It’s something that we’ve had to struggle with, we’ve been struggling with all year, something we’ve got to figure out how to overcome. I still have confidence in this group if we get a chance to play at the end I’d put this group up against anybody. We’ve just got to get healthy and figure it out.”
A difficult loss for the Hawks, who played a really strong first half in which they scored 65 points but could only manage 33 points, while the Celtics managed 56 points in the second half. The Celtics, I personally think, have some sleeper potential in the Eastern Conference after the trade deadline but more factually speaking also possess of the 6-seed the Hawks are chasing. For that reason, the fact the Hawks were leading by 14 points heading into the second half and allowed it to slip in the way they did and unable to recover to win the game is disappointing: they needed this game to really have any hope of a potential 6-seed. The Hawks are 6.5 games behind in the 10-seed but sit behind three other teams also chasing the play-in spot.
Not impossible but increasingly difficult, and with three of their next four games on the road, it’s not going to get easier for the Hawks.
The Hawks (29-32) are back in action on Thursday night against the Chicago Bulls (39-23) at State Farm Arena.
Until next time...