The Atlanta Hawks entered this postseason ranked first in the NBA in points allowed per possession since December 15. Their first-round series with the Boston Celtics confirmed that defensive excellence over six games, with Thursday night's clinching 104-92 win at TD Garden serving as perhaps the most impressive performance of the bunch.
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Two days after dominating the Celtics during a pivotal Game 5 win in Atlanta, the Hawks controlled proceedings again, this time on the road. While the offense was slow to get going, Atlanta limited Boston to just 33 points and 27.6 percent shooting, including a 3-of-18 mark from beyond the arc. Those numbers improved considerably in the second half, but the Hawks countered with a much more explosive third quarter to enter rout territory. A late Celtics run helped to avoid an outright blowout and make the last few minutes marginally interesting, but this game belonged to the Hawks nearly the whole way.
Boston's offensive struggles carried over from Game 5 and represented something like a worst-case scenario for a team so heavily dependent on All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas for scoring and shot creation. The path to shutting down the Celtics is well known, but the Hawks deserve lots of credit for executing it very well. That includes closing out on shooters and denial at the rim, success evidenced by 12 blocked shots (including 10 in the first three quarters).
At the same time, the Celtics' own shooting struggles arguably contributed to their demise more than any influence from the Hawks. Teams don't score fewer than 20 points in consecutive quarters due to defense alone, and on a certain level Boston didn't score because players couldn't make shots. It was a team-wide issue, which is how the Celtics missed 16 straight three-pointers from the 0:31 mark of the first quarter until the 1:46 mark of the third. That's nearly a half of basketball without a conversion.
No player's difficulties loomed larger than those of Thomas, who scored 25 points overall but made missed eight of his 11 shots in the first half. Thomas doesn't have to score a ton to make the Celtics offense work, but he does have to pose a considerable threat. He never reached that level before the fourth quarter, and the Hawks reaped the benefits.
It's tough to say how impressive Atlanta was in the first half, because they managed only 41 points for a relatively narrow eight-point lead that likely should have been much larger. Yet they reached offensive expectations quite quickly in the third. A 14-3 run over the first 3:10 of the half opened up a 19-point lead, and the Hawks scored 39 in the quarter to head into the fourth up 80-59. The key was balance — no Atlanta player finished with more than Paul Millsap's 17 points, but six scored in double figures as the team shot 51.4 percent from the field.
The fourth quarter very easily could have devolved into garbage time, but the Celtics used a 22-6 run to get within striking distance in the final minutes. The deficit never got under 11 points, but Boston at least went out of the postseason showcasing the high energy and resolve that helped them exceed preseason expectations to capture the East's No. 5 seed. They hold several first-round draft picks and meaningful cap space, so expect them to make a run at a much-needed high-level scorer this summer.
The Hawks will start their Eastern Conference Semifinals series with the top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers on Monday night, and it's clear that they will need to bring the same defensive effort (and then some) to compete with the clear favorite to represent the East in the NBA Finals. This series win was impressive, but the real challenge starts now.
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