The Boston Celtics will likely reflect on Game 1 of their first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks and wonder what could have been if they hadn't started the night with one of their worst shooting performances of the season. They also may consider how they measure up now that one of their best players could miss time.
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Boston shot a season-worst 23.1 percent from the field (including 2-of-16 on threes) in the first half to trail 51-34 at the break, only to bounce back quickly in the second half and tie it at 80-80 with more than seven minutes remaining in regulation. The Celtics managed to take the lead shortly thereafter, but their fortunes turned when starting guard and ace defender Avery Bradley left and did not return with a strained hamstring inside of the 7:00 mark. Atlanta then regained control and managed to hold on for a 102-101 win despite two Boston threes in the final six seconds to keep it close.
The story of the night was undoubtedly the Celtics' offensive first-half struggles and second-half resurgence. A great deal of those early issues can be explained by the Hawks' excellent defense. Although they lack a nationally recognized elite defender like Kawhi Leonard or Draymond Green, the Hawks boasted the NBA's best defense by points allowed per possession since December 15. The Celtics struggled to get good shots anywhere and couldn't make them even when they did. The first-half shot chart is not pretty:
At the same time, the Hawks manufactured enough offense at the other end to build what seemed like a commanding lead. The frontcourt of Paul Millsap, Al Horford, and Kent Bazmore combined for 31 points on strong shooting, while point guard Jeff Teague led the attack with seven points and seven rebounds. The high-energy Celtics looked overmatched in the face of the Hawks' talent and precision.
Fortunes turned in the third quarter, when the Celtics managed to create some transition opportunities and improved their three-point shooting considerably. All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas also got going, bouncing back to finish with 27 points on 4-of-10 shooting from beyond the arc. Boston took the third 31-21 and started the fourth 15-8 to tie. They looked on their way to a very impressive come-from-behind win.
Oddly enough, the momentum began to shift back in Atlanta's favor on the play that gave Boston an 83-80 lead. Bradley stopped a Teague lay-up that led to a Jae Crowder three-pointer at the other end, but he pulled up with a hamstring injury on his way back up the floor following his strong defense. Bradley went to the locker room immediately after a timeout and was announced as out for the remainder with a strained hamstring just a few minutes later.
The exact severity of the injury is not known right now, but immediate impressions are not good:
Avery Bradley in serious pain. Could not reach down and pull his pants up w/o assistance.. VERY questionable for game 2. #Celticstalk
— A. Sherrod Blakely (@SherrodbCSN) April 17, 2016
Avery Bradley "heard a pop," per Brad Stevens.
— Chris Mannix (@ChrisMannixYS) April 17, 2016
Marcus Smart returned to take Bradley's spot, and the difference in ability was immediately apparent. Both Smart and Bradley are lockdown perimeter defenders, but Bradley at least carries the threat of outside shooting even if he's not an outright marksman. Several Celtics possessions ended up in the hands of Smart and the similarly challenged shooter Evan Turner down the stretch, and in most cases the looks did not fall. The Hawks were fortunate that several other open shots for better shooters didn't go, either, but the Celtics offense generally was not at its most efficient in crunch time. It could have similar issues if the Hawks are able to key on Thomas without Bradley there to share playmaking duties.
If it sounds like the Hawks were bystanders to their own win, it's only because their success was largely a matter of stability and no-nonsense execution. With Kyle Korver misfiring on all but one of his 10 shots attempts (including 0-of-7 from deep), Atlanta depended on Teague (23 points and 12 assists), Horford (24 and 12 rebounds), Bazemore (23 and 8), and a bevy of foul shots (27-of-35 FT) to create offense. Nevertheless, this was a game won with defense.
If the Celtics have reason for hope in this series without Bradley, it's that they were able to stay in the game even when so many things were going wrong. In fact, they nearly won the game on a wild steal and heave from Smart with just 0.4 seconds on the clock:
The shot wouldn't have counted, but it demonstrates how close Boston was to an unlikely win. All signs point to more good results for Atlanta right now, but these games may not ascribe to logic and reason. Game 1 certainly didn't.
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