The Boston Celtics entered this season known as a group of talented and tough, but largely unknown, role-player types. That impression changed after a short while due to the continued emergence of diminutive guard Isaiah Thomas, a no-doubt All-Star selection in February and the NBA's 11th leading scorer this season. With the Celtics entering Friday night's Game 3 of their first-round series with the Atlanta Hawks in a 2-0 hole, Thomas was sure to be counted on for a star turn to help extend the season.
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He more than did his part. Thomas scored 42 points, including 16 in a terrific first quarter for the hosts, to lead the Celtics to a 111-103 win that cuts the Hawks' series lead to 2-1. Thomas is the ninth player in Celtics history to score at least 40 points in a playoff game, and this performance should help cement his stardom nationally. He did everything a scorer should do — creating shots off the dribble, making threes (5-of-12), and getting to the line (13-of-15) with consistency. Both Thomas and head coach Brad Stevens earned their first career playoff wins.
Atlanta did well to get back into the game after a wretched start and trailed by just one point entering the final six minutes of regulation. However, the Hawks offense had huge problems in crunch time due to a series of bad decisions by virtually every player on the floor. They did not convert a field goal after the 3:49 mark, a period during which Thomas himself doubled the Hawks' output of three points. Atlanta still holds the edge in the series and should feel good about its ability to take Sunday's Game 4 on the road, but they have plenty to fix to put themselves in that position.
It'd also help Atlanta if Boston didn't come out with the kind of all-encompassing excellence that kicked off Game 3. A team known for its activity and energy made plays all over the court, with Thomas spearheading the scoring but everyone else contributing in some way. That includes forward Jonas Jerebko, who started with Kelly Olynyk unavailable due to a right shoulder injury in order to space the floor. Jerebko opened the scoring with a tip dunk (or swat-in) and finished up the quarter with this nifty behind-the-back pass to rookie Terry Rozier for a long corner two:
That playmaking was the order of the day for the Celtics, who opened up a 17-6 lead in about 4:30 of game time and took the opening quarter 37-20.
The downside was that they were playing so well as to be unsustainable, and the Hawks bounced back to cut the margin to 51-41 in the final minutes of the second quarter. The biggest factor for the comeback was a return to normalcy for the Celtics offense, because Atlanta managed only a brief uptick in its own scoring while working through a 2-of-17 half from beyond the arc. Boston avoided disaster and used an alley-oop from Thomas to Amir Johnson in the closing seconds to enter the break with a 57-45 lead.
It looked as if the Celtics would run away with it after scoring the first seven points of the second half to go up 19. Yet the Hawks countered with a 14-2 run of their own to get back into it, a stretch that ended up looking more like a statement of purpose than a comeback. The Hawks another 12-2 run towards the end of the period to tie it with 1:21 on the clock, although Jerebko scored at the third-quarter buzzer to give the Celtics a narrow 80-78 lead.
It's difficult to say that Atlanta succeeded in changing the dynamics of the game during these runs, because they attempted to play fast with an emphasis on three-point shooting. What did change is that they started creating better looks and making shots. That offensive execution and shot-making carried over to the fourth, where Atlanta scored 20 points in the opening six minutes.
Boston made plays, as well, which led to one of the most exciting stretches these playoffs have yet seen during a back-and-forth run of field goals on 10 straight possessions from the 8:26 to 6:13 marks. It looked as if we were headed for an epic finish.
Then the Atlanta offense cratered thanks to a mix of bad passes and missed shots that were both contested and not. It's difficult to blame any one facet of the attack for these issues when so much went wrong, but part of the problem can be explained by the fact that the Hawks never really established their frontcourt scorers over the game as a whole. Paul Millsap and Al Horford combined to take 19 shots — as many as Kent Bazemore took alone — for eight points each, very low figures for All-Stars. Both players missed lay-ups late, but they also generally looked to play a little faster and more frazzled than usual.
In other words, the Celtics managed to set the tempo in Game 3 from the very beginning, effectively taking the Hawks away from many of their strengths and allowing Thomas to thrive in his desired style. The 40-point scorer is always going to get the headlines (deservedly), but this was a full-team win. We'll see if they can even up the series at 2-2 on Sunday night.
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