After a trip to Boston where they suffered consecutive 13-point defeats, the Hawks returned to Atlanta with their backs against the wall. The Hawks were a home loss from a 3-0 series deficit heading into play Friday night. As no team in NBA history has ever mounted a comeback from a 3-0 series hole, Game 3 was virtually a must-win game for the Atlanta Hawks.
When the lights shined brightest, the Hawks’ two stars showed up. They and a revitalized bench willed the Hawks past the Celtics to keep their postseason hopes alive, 130-122. It was a classic shootout, with both teams north of 1.18 points per possession in the game, but Atlanta was the one to hit the big shots down the stretch to provide the difference in the win.
Trae Young put on a show in front of the home crowd, logging 32 points on 12-for-22 (55%) shooting, nine assists, six rebounds, two blocks and a steal. His backcourt mate, Dejounte Murray, also added 25 points on 11-for-21 (52%) shooting, six rebounds, and five assists.
The Boston Celtics were able to use off ball screens and, um, a fairly loose whistle to get free from deep and hit 15-of-25 (60%) attempts from three in the first half.
On the first triple of the night, Al Horford is able to shield off De’Andre Hunter trying to close out on Jayson Tatum. Hunter would be frustrated all night by the lack of calls on these frankly borderline moving screens.
In this next clip, the Celtics run a staple: Spain pick-and-roll where Horford sets a ball screen, but then he receives a back screen from Jaylen Brown to free him for the roll. Brogdon instead opts for a step back three with the space created.
The one player the Hawks frequently — and generally intentionally — left in space on the perimeter was Marcus Smart. Smart is by no means a bad shooter these days, as a 34% shooter from three this season, but at times Snyder opted to match Clint Capela on him and match a more mobile defender on Horford as part of a pick-your-poison strategy. Here, Onyeka Okongwu goes under the screen action, and Smart — who finished with 24 points on the night — makes Atlanta pay for that strategy.
The 15 threes conceded by the Hawks is the most for any team who went into half in the lead in NBA Playoff history, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
The Celtics are the first team in NBA Playoffs history to make 15 3s in a first half and trail at halftime.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 22, 2023
Still, Atlanta would adjust and only limit Boston to 6-for-23 (26%) shooting from three in the second half.
Jayson Tatum led the Celtics with 29 points and five assists, and he drew the praise of the opposing coach. “Tatum in particular is just hard to guard one-on-one,” explained head coach Quin Snyder. “So you have to commit multiple defenders to him and those other guys are prepared. They know when those shots are coming. And [Tatum] has become an excellent passer. You can tell he takes a lot of pride in making a play when he gets double teamed.”
Trae Young was able to draw inspiration from Boston’s style of play and adopt it into what Atlanta wants to do. “We did a great job of spacing the floor and giving each other space and room and gaps,” Trae Young exclaimed after the contest. “That’s what [Boston does]. That’s why they’re really good. They got a lot of guys who can play, but those two guys, Jaylen [Brown] and Jayson [Tatum], they are the two heads of the snake. They have to have space to attack, and they do a great job. And we’re trying to do the same.”
The Hawks were able to keep pace and a take a 74-67 lead at halftime through crisp offensive execution of their own. Additionally, Atlanta received some key contributions from the bench unit that was largely absent during the previous road trip to Boston. Bogdan Bogdanovic was a perfect 6-for-6 from the field in the first half for 15 points, and kept the offense humming even when the Young-Murray pair was being staggered for minutes.
The Celtics were have been intent on discouraging shots in the lane by bringing in extra bodies. Here, ‘Bogi’ is able to create off the dribble, get past Derrick White, and draw Robert Williams III away from John Collins in the corner, where the forward knocks down a big three.
Still, Bogdanovic is earning his keep as an NBA veteran primarily as a shooter. Below, he shows Tatum that if he can find space in transition with a nifty spin move, he won’t be shy about firing.
Trae Young had a masterful game, carefully navigating through the harassing Celtics defense and probing for openings. Here, Young is able to string along a double team toward the baseline and eventually find Saddiq Bey for three of his 15 points.
“Saddiq [Bey] came in and gave us a lift,” noted head coach Quin Snyder after a couple of rough games for Bey in Boston. “He’s too good a shooter to not see the ball go in eventually.”
“Saddiq [Bey] is really good for us,” said Trae Young. “He’s smart. He can really shoot the ball. He plays with a toughness about him that we all need on the team.”
But in crunch time, the guard duo took over in earnest. In the fourth quarter of the 10 field goals made in the fourth quarter for the Hawks, five were scored by Trae Young, three by Dejounte Murray, and a ninth was assisted by Young to a cutting De’Andre Hunter.
Here is that find for Young to Hunter, who is able to exploit Al Horford in drop coverage just long enough to lay it off for an easy lay-in. Despite a heavy emphasis on clogging up the lane, Celtics didn’t record a single block all night long while the Hawks were able to pour in 56 points in the paint.
More often than not, Young was able take advantage of Horford dropping to protect the rim by using a high screen to get off a free throw line floater.
Young does nearly the same thing just a minute later, this time with a little bit of flair on the finger roll.
Here, Al Horford draws Young on a switch. With the shot clock running down, Young calmly gets to his spot by side stepping the on ball defense and drops in a big triple.
Dejounte Murray was able to take over for a bit in the fourth quarter, putting into two big elbow pull up jumpers when the lead was starting to falter. In this clip, however, he showed his improvement in his contested three-point shooting ability by firing over the pesky Derrick White.
And for good measure below, Trae Young gets White on his back hip and drives into the lane for what would be the dagger shot in a Hawks win.
“I thought we played with great intensity, particularly I thought [Young] and [Murray] from a leadership standpoint,” said coach Snyder. “The beginning of the third quarter was a crucial time for us. When we came out of a timeout and those two guys […] connecting and pushing each other.”
“They were talking to each other, first of all,” Snyder effused about his guard duo. “Figuring out what they were thinking together. Playing off each other. You saw it in some of the execution in the fourth quarter. At one point, I was just like ‘I should just be quiet and let them go ahead and handle it.’ Usually when that’s happening as a coach, if you feel that and you respect those guys and they are communicating like that and they’re on the same page, people will play off of them.”
“Just being solid,” Dejounte Murray detailed about his partnership with Trae Young. “Believing in the whole group. Believing in each other. But mainly staying solid and trying to take care of the ball and make the right decision whether it’s for a teammate or ourselves.”
“They had some isolation situations where they created for themselves and for other guys and got spaced,” said coach Snyder. “I think that was a lot of them just figuring stuff out and talking to one another. People feed off that. Those two, when they’re making plays and making plays for each other, that’s when we’re going to be playing our best basketball.”
Atlanta posted a 125 offensive rating Friday night after failing to crack 105 in either of the two previous games on the road. It was evident that the players fed off the home crowd energy and were able to play the more familiar brand of basketball that they were used to as the 7th best offense by offensive rating during the regular season.
Spacing was a key term that was referenced multiple times in postgame quotes. Atlanta used this space to pair the 56 points in the paint with 45 points from three on 15-for-34 (44%) shooting from deep. “Our spacing was better in a lot of situations and we were willing to get off the ball and make a higher percentage play than we were the other night,” said coach Snyder.
“I thought [Young] got really connected in pick-and-roll, and then he did in transition too by attacking, playing faster, and reading those seams,” he continued later. “The key for him and [Murray] and all of us: if we space properly, we have a chance.”
The Hawks responded in a tense situation when they needed it most and won the game with some clutch play down the stretch. The win brings the series to 2-1 with one more home game to go before a Game 5 back in New England. Boston will surely regroup, so it will be imperative for the Hawks to come out once again with renewed focus and execution on Sunday.