The Atlanta Hawks were unable to return to winning ways as they fell short to the NBA-leading Boston Celtics, 125-117, on Wednesday night at TD Garden.
Saddiq Bey led the Hawks in scoring with 25 points, and Trae Young added 20 points and 10 assists. For the Celtics, Kristaps Porzingis poured out a game-high 31 points while Derrick White added 21 points.
The Hawks were always going to be up against it on the road against the NBA’s best, but their chances were dealt an even further blow as Dejounte Murray was ruled out about an hour before the game with lower back tightness — with Bogdan Bogdanovic stepping into his place in the starting lineup. Clint Capela continues to be sidelined with a left adductor strain, so Onyeka Okongwu again started in his place.
The Hawks began affairs here in the right way, and, instead of being gut-punched early on the road, they hung with the Celtics and lead for much of the first quarter and the second quarter for that matter, the efforts of Bey (18 first half points), Young (15 first half points) and Okongwu (11 points) keeping the Hawks firmly in the hunt in Boston.
However, once the second half arrived, it was all Boston. The Hawks would never lead in the second half and their offense nose-dived, shooting 39% in the second half and 4-of-17 from three.
Where the game got away from them was in the early part of the fourth quarter where Boston finally opened out their lead for the first time beyond double-digits, leading by as many as 13 points. The Hawks made a late rally and brought the Celtic lead down to five points but missed a massive opportunity with a corner three for Bey that would have brought the game down to two points with under a minute remaining:
A tough miss there, but one that was indicative of the Hawks’ struggles from three in the second half. It also proved very costly as the Celtics run a pick-and-pop for Porzingis who hits the dagger three at the end of the clock:
Similar to the Clippers game on the Kawhi Leonard three, again, it’s another Atlanta switch that isn’t dealt with at a crucial moment — Bey and Jalen Johnson have to communicate better in this spot, and this was a lot more costly in the moment than the Leonard three.
After that hammer blow, the Hawks sank to defeat in Boston but in a valiant effort against the NBA’s leading team without Murray and Capela.
Postgame, Hawks head coach Quin Snyder was pleased with his side’s effort and lamented the Hawks’ shots not dropping for them, as well as acknowledging the big Bey three that was missed.
“I think we knew who were playing as far as the strengths of their team and we knew they were going to shoot threes I think they made six in the fourth quarter,” said Snyder postgame. “Saddiq had a terrific game and he’s got a clean look in the corner to cut it to two. It’s hard to be disappointed in that effort, particularly we felt we had to shoot the ball at a good clip and we weren’t able to see the ball go in. We had some good shots but I think guys were confident in the shots they were taking, they just didn’t go. We competed and battled and that was good to see on the road against arguably the best team in the league.”
The Hawks were perturbed by the presence at times of Porzingis and Luke Kornet and Snyder believes that the Hawks did well to keep their offensive awareness open, and again drew back to a lack of luck with shots simply not falling.
“I think at the rim but I think we did a good job, when we did attack, in spite of some of that we did have our eyes out,” said Snyder of the Celtics’ length bothering the Hawks’ shots. “I thought the looks we had from three were clean, the ball didn’t accommodate us.”
Young struggled shooting the ball in the second half where he only scored five points on 2-of-9 shooting, and when asked about his second half Snyder again referenced the Celtics' length at the rim. In total, he scored 20 points on 8-of-25 shooting from the field and 2-of-10 from three.
“I thought he got in the lane,” said Snyder of Young’s second half. “I actually like it when people try to pick him up because it gives him more space. He and Bogi both had looks where we’re very confident in them taking, but the ball didn’t go in tonight. Their length, certainly, has an impact on the rim. Both those guys, Porzingis and Kornet, can shoot the ball."
At the rim, the Hawks scored just fine but outside of the restricted area there were a few more struggles to be had:
From beyond the arc, you can see the corner shot just wasn’t falling for the Hawks. Bogdanovic struggled from three last night, shooting 2-of-10 from three, same as Young. The Hawks shot 13-of-41 from three for 31%. The Celtics didn’t fare a ton better, 34.7%, but made 17 threes, which certainly made a difference by the end of the game.
Speaking of struggles, it was a night where the Celtics' All-Star duo of Tatum (20 points on 8-of-21 shooting) and Brown (15 points on just 11 field goal attempts) struggled to hit their usual scoring numbers and Snyder was pleased with the job his wings performed on the duo.
"I thought we did a really good job — Hunt, Jalen and Saddiq — guarding those wings, those are tough matchups,” said Snyder. “Jaylen and Jayson, they’re terrific players.”
The Hawks will, I'm sure, have taken their chances and let Porzingis and White beat them over Tatum and Brown, but I think there will be some disappointment that having limited Tatum and Brown that the Hawks couldn't see this game through. However, this is why the Celtics are who they are, why they are arguably the league's best team, and why both Porzingis and White were widely and popularly discussed to be named All-Star replacements in the Eastern Conference.
Snyder was pleased with the efforts across the board but, for the third time in his postgame comments, was drawn to the Hawks' shooting struggles.
“I think we had a lot of guys that played well and we didn’t shoot,” said Snyder. “You’re going to have to make some shots against a team that shoots it as well as Boston does.”
On the night itself the Hawks, despite being double-digit underdogs, could definitely have emerged from Boston with the victory had they had better fortunes from three, particularly in the second half. Bey played a solid game overall but that last shot for him, open in the corner, would have hurt to miss.
Moral victories (if you can even count this as one) won't take the Hawks anywhere but they're in a weird spot (at least prior to the deadline) where they're unlikely to rise higher than eighth in the East, which is a Play-In spot anyways. They could still, theoretically, fall out of the play-in with the Nets, somehow, still looming despite feeling as though the Hawks should be five games clear given the Nets’ struggles for quite a while now. But with the Hawks — a win here, a loss there, four wins here, two losses there — it's hard to escape the bigger picture that has been the case for a little while now (and will have been for over half the season once it's over in April) — that this team is seemingly set, again, for a Play-In berth unless they can turn things around dramatically after the All-Star break.
The Hawks have been good at stringing together strong second-halves of seasons prior, but it’s still just been to make the Play-In. Do they have another flip of the switch in them, or are they what they have been now for the majority of the season? Is there any scenario for them where they aren’t the ninth or 10th seed at best? The picture could become a lot clearer later today depending the outcome of the trade deadline.
Another game is in the books, and irrespective of whether it’s a win or loss, a similar fate seemingly looms large ahead of the Atlanta Hawks...
The Hawks (22-29) are back in action on Friday when they will face the Philadelphia 76ers (30-20), who are reeling in the absence of Joel Embiid having lost seven of their last eight games now.
Until next time...