And so we ask: Are the Atlanta Hawks this good, or have the Boston Celtics, who are down two men and two games, this bad? The Hawks were great on defense in Game 2 -- they won 89-72, the entirety of that margin having been forged in a historic first quarter -- but that wasn't the same as being simply great.
"The outplayed us in every category that first quarter," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said, telling no lies. "That was one team playing at an elite level and another team not."
The Hawks led 24-3 after 6 1/2 minutes. They wouldn't score again in the quarter. They led 43-28 at the half having gone scoreless over their final seven possessions of the second quarter. Their defense was so unyielding -- and Boston's offense so discombobulated -- that there was never a chance the Hawks would blow this 15-point halftime advantage the way they wasted the 17-point lead in Saturday's Game 1. Then again, the Celtics had Avery Bradley for most of that night.
The Celtics were overmatched, talent-wise, coming into the series. Without Bradley and now Kelly Olynyk, this really isn't a 4-vs.-5 series. It's more like a regular-season game between the Warriors and the 76ers. (OK, that's overstating, but not by much.) Stevens was reduced to deploying R.J. Hunter, the rookie from Georgia State, for more than 14 minutes Tuesday, and here we saw why Hunter played in only 36 of 82 regular-season games. He's not ready yet.
In 14 minutes and 40 seconds, Hunter didn't have a point or a rebound or an assist. He took three shots, all jumpers. Two were blocked. He was a Round 1 pick and could well be a useful player in time. That time wasn't Game 2 of a playoff series on the road.
Let's not pick on R.J. Every Boston player was outclassed. Jae Crowder missed eight of nine shots. Marcus Smart, starting in Bradley's stead, missed 10 of 11. Isaiah Thomas missed 11 of 15 and had more turnovers than assists. The Celtics as a team mustered seven first-quarter points, marking the post-shot-clock low for any playoff quarter in team history and the worst first-quarter output in NBA playoff annals.
Still, the Hawks couldn't quite put the Celtics away until the final minutes of the fourth quarter, which is why it's hard to wrap this effort in golden robes of greatness. The Hawks made only 39 percent of their shots. They had 15 turnovers. They were outscored in the lane by a team that has no quality low-post players.
The defense was terrific, yes. The Hawks blocked 15 shots, a franchise playoff record. The Celtics contributed mightily, though, by over-penetrating and by missing 23 of 28 trey tries, a failing that enabled the Hawks to clog the lane. (It also helped that the refs -- who seemed to call it the same way on both ends -- whistled only 31 fouls in 48 minutes. Being the smaller team, the C's need some calls.)
"Tonight had a different feel than the other night," Stevens said. "Tonight it never felt as if we were at their level."
That might be more than a feeling. It might well be reality. Without Bradley, the Celtics have nobody to guard Jeff Teague. Without Olynyk, they're down to two rotational players taller than 6-foot-9 -- and those two are Jonas Jerebko and Tyler Zeller, neither of whom is to be confused with Dave Cowens, neither of whom even starts.
Coming into the series, the feeling here was that the Celtics could hang close so long as they revved the tempo and made shots and defended like crazy. That formula -- on Saturday, they made shots late if not early -- nearly stole Game 1. Now it feels as if that might have been a one-off.
The Celtics shoot a slew of 3-pointers -- they were 11th in attempts over the regular season -- because they're small. They're also bad shooters. They ranked 28th among the league's 30 teams in 3-point percentage. In this series, they're 16 for 63, which is 25.4 percent, which is awful. Crowder has missed nine of his 11 treys, which makes you think he should stop shooting. But what's the alternative?
Add it up -- no low-post game, their best 3-point shooter (Bradley) gone for the series, their depth depleted to its nub -- and there's not much the Celtics can do except defend and hope the Hawks miss. The Hawks missed 50 of 82 shots Tuesday and won by 17 points. Figure Game 3 will be tougher, given that it's in Boston, but even a parquet floor mightn't be enough to close this sudden manpower gap. And if the Hawks win Game 3, there probably won't be a Game 5.
If they keep guarding like this -- and, seeing as how they were second in the NBA in defensive efficiency, there's no reason to believe they wont -- the Hawks will make it tough on any opponent. But it's hard to imagine they'll face another team in these playoffs as weak as Boston has become.
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