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Celtics outlast Hawks in Game 4, take 3-1 series lead

The Hawks stare down the barrel of elimination.

Boston Celtics v Atlanta Hawks - Game Four Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks dropped Game 4 of their best-of-seven series with the Boston Celtics on Sunday night at State Farm Arena, 129-121, falling to a 1-3 series deficit.

Trae Young led the Hawks in scoring with 35 points and 15 assists, with De’Andre Hunter adding 27 points. For the Celtics, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown scored 31 points apiece, with Marcus Smart adding 19 points.

Having taken a game back in the series, the Hawks realistically needed to win this game to give themselves any hope. A defeat here and the Celtics have the opportunity to close this one out comfortably on their home floor in Game 5. Sure enough, the visitors would be the first ones to strike in this one, taking a double-digit lead in the first quarter.

It was this initial separation that the Celtics used to keep the Hawks at arm’s length for much of the game; the second quarter was mostly a double-digit Celtic lead before the Hawks made a run but an unfortunate end to the first half allowed the Celtics to open out that gap again. It was a shame the half ended as it did and put a bit of a damper on the crowd, who were extremely into the game in the second quarter as the Hawks went on their run.

Still, the Hawks came out in the second half and gave them something to cheer as their level of play picked up in the third. Clint Capela got himself going in the third and the Hawks even trimmed the lead to three points on a Bogdan Bogdanovic three before Smart’s dunk put the Celtics up five heading into the fourth.

The Hawks survived the Celtics’ re-establishing of their double-digit lead and cut it back to five points with just over four minutes remaining after a Murray floater. Again, it was the Celtics who came up with the answers.

Here, Murray — not for the first time this game — gets caught going for the steal, and Brown drives inside, draws Capela, and finds Robert Williams III for the basket at the rim:

This wasn’t even the only time this game where Murray did this and it cost the Hawks a basket, so why he would think this was a good idea at this stage of the game to go for the steal here is an odd one.

Young bails him out and resets the lead to five points with this floater but you can’t help but feel that cutting this game to a single possession (if the Hawks had got a stop on the prior possession) could have shaped this game differently:

The Celtics create the switch they want on the next possession as the Williams and Derrick White screens make life difficult for Murray, and Young ends up on the switch with Brown. From here, it’s a fairly rudamentary drive from Brown to escape, Capela has no choice but to step-up and Brown again finds Williams at the rim:

This time on the Hawks’ next possession, they aren’t able to get it back. The drive and kick-out from Young goes to Murray but his three is well closed down by Brown and well contested, and Murray’s shot is short:

With 15/16 seconds left on the clock and with Brown in his face, in hindsight perhaps this wasn’t the best shot for Murray to take.

On the ensuing Celtics possession, Tatum drives — with Murray guarding him — and Murray is adjudged to have committed the foul:

John Collins possibly could have committed more to blocking the path for Tatum but with Williams looming (and having scored on the last two possessions in dump-off situations) I can understand the hesitance.

Murray was again involved in the Hawks’ next offensive possession but on his drive he slips and turns the ball over:

The Hawks were already on the back-foot here but this next play was the straw that probably broke the camel’s back.

The shotclock winds down, Hunter deflects the ball just over the halfcourt line where it’s picked up by Tatum, who pulls up from 33 feet with a contested shot at the end of the clock and drains the three to put the Celtics back up by 12 with just over two minutes remaining:

The game was really up after that — a back-breaker of a play from Tatum and the Celtics, an unbelievable bit of shotmaking. For the Hawks, their chance had come and gone. Young and Murray made some shots but the Celtics had a reply for each one — Tatum and Brown combining to score the last 16 points of the game for the Celtics.

Postgame, Hawks head coach Quin Snyder discussed playing a 48 minute game and that the Celtics’ first punch caused them to stumble, their physicality creating a problem.

“We knew this game would be a physical, highly intense game,” said Snyder. “I don’t think we matched that consistently over the course of the game the way we needed too, particularly at the outset of the game. We did get back into it, down four at one point. Couldn’t get over the hump. Still alive, have to go to Boston and see what we can do.”

You look across the board and there weren’t many areas the Celtics out-performed the Hawks. The Celtics made 16 threes to Atlanta’s 14 (a good night from three from the Hawks), both made 21 free throws, both had 25 assists, the Hawks committed four fewer turnovers than the Celtics (12-16), scored five more second chance points (16-11) and scored one less point in points off of turnovers (12-11).

However, the Celtics shot 51.7% from the field to the Hawks’ 43.9% — it’s still just too easy overall for the Celtics and this was reflected in one of the few telling differentials from this game: points in the paint.

The Celtics outscored the Hawks 56-44 in the paint and shot 65% near the rim:

“They got to the basket on us a little bit more tonight and made some easier shots,” said Trae Young postgame.

This inability to prevent baskets at the rim/defensive stops was something that Snyder pointed to postgame, that every time the Hawks had a chance to cut the lead their inability to get stops meant the Celtics just extended the lead again.

“They were on the rim a lot,” said Snyder. “We started scoring the ball more but we weren’t able to get stops. They were quicker to some loose balls, we couldn’t make a play it felt like on the defensive end to get us there with a chance to cut it, they just extended it again. They have guys who can make plays and they did. They made some shots, some loose balls and got on the rim and extended it again.”

Tatum and Brown were excellent, and they were excellent at running the ball down the Hawks’ paint (Brown more so than Tatum, who shot 8-of-20 from the field but shot 11-of-12 from the line) but allowing others like Marcus Smart to get going did not help their cause. Too easily were the Hawks beaten out front, between Murray and Young (but more so Murray) gambling for steals and opening up the defense, the Celtics rinsing Young through pick-and-roll, it just causes such a problem behind the line. Collins and Capela did what they could and blocked some shots. It’s a tough job for Capela/Collins/Okongwu to try clean up and when they rotate the Celtics are good at moving the ball to find the open man, and that’s how Robert Williams III ends up with 13 points: just from waiting near the rim as he did in the fourth quarter when the defense breaks down.

Running the ball down the Hawks’ throat was also reflective in the fastbreak differential — 18-8. The Celtics were just quicker to the ball in transition and their sense of urgency was just greater than the Hawks’ last night. It felt like it meant more to them to win this game and have the chance to close it out in five (with the Sixers already waiting for them and Joel Embiid’s chances of playing increasing with each day longer this series drags on) than it meant for the Hawks to have a better chance of staying alive and tying the series.

“They came out with a sense of urgency and it showed,” said Young. “They’re a really good team, they’re here for a reason.”

Brown and Tatum led the way here for Boston but the Celtics had six players in double-digit scoring to back them up, including the efforts of both Robert Williams III (who was great defensively and grabbed 15 rebounds) as well as Sixth Man of the Year Malcolm Brogdon’s 14 points on 6-of-10 shooting. Al Horford was scoreless and was a plus-17 on the game, showing his impact last night went beyond scoring.

The Hawks’ efforts sadly didn’t run as deep.

Young eventually got going in the second half and finished with 35 points on 11-of-26 shooting from the field and 4-of-10 from three, Murray scored 23 points on 9-of-20 shooting and 4-of-8 from three. Murray has had a good series but his fourth quarter last night in the key moments got away from him slightly.

De’Andre Hunter enjoyed a strong game, scoring 27 points on 11-of-17 shooting from the field and 3-of-6 from three. It was his aggressiveness in his shooting that pleased Quin Snyder postgame.

“I think that’s the message,” said Snyder of Hunter’s performance. “He’s a good shooter and a really good player. Sometimes too when you have a defensive assignment like he has in this series that can take something out of you. I’m glad he stayed aggressive. We need that and we’ll need even more of it in Boston. We’ve got to have a lot of guys play well.”

The issues is that how much more is there for the Hawks in here? Young scored a somewhat efficient 35 and had 15 assists, Murray scored 23 points on 45% from the field and hit four threes, Hunter hit 27 points... How much more is there in the tank to go toe-to-toe with these Celtics?

Sure, there are better games to be had from John Collins (who has had a really tough series offensively), Bogdan Bogdanovic (who fouled out in the fourth) and Saddiq Bey (2-of-7 from the field and 0-of-3 from three) but it’s hard to envision the Hawks’ getting these increased performances and have Young, Murray and Hunter shoot as they did here. As Snyder said, they need a lot of guys to play well and the bottom line is usually they don’t — not at the same time.

Not to mention, Murray is under investigation from the NBA into an incident that took place with an official at the end of the game where Murray bumps the official which was captured by this user on Twitter after game:

That...doesn’t look great.

The NBA does not normally take kindly to incidents like this, and Murray’s actions afterwards do not seem to suggest it was a mistake or bodes well, nor the animosity from official Gediminas Petraitis towards Murray after the bump.

We’ll see what the NBA does in terms of any possible suspension. Even with Murray playing the Celtics will still be double-digit favorites heading into Game 5, his absence will just add insult to injury.

It’s a tough one for the Hawks: in a couple of these games they’ve been close at times with the Celtics, who just edge away in the fourth quarter. The Hawks have run them close a few times.

It’s ironic. If the Hawks had lost against the Miami Heat in the play-in and faced the Milwaukee Bucks and faced the same scenario the Heat have with an injured Giannis and the Heat currently leading 2-1, you can’t help but wonder how the Hawks could have fared in that scenario. It’s an interesting thought.

...Or, they could have ended up losing to the Chicago Bulls in the play-in, such are the 2022-23 Hawks — it would not have been a surprise. It’s just conjecture at this stage.

In the real world, however, the Hawks are now down 3-1: it’s win or go home for the Atlanta Hawks, with Game 5 taking place on Tuesday night at TD Garden in Boston.

Is this it for the Atlanta Hawks’ season?

We shall soon see...