ATLANTA – The Boston Celtics have some late season momentum, but not the kind they were looking for.
For the second time in as many nights, the Celtics ran into an opponent that played with a greater sense of urgency at both ends of the floor.
And the result was yet another Celtics loss as the Atlanta Hawks took control in the first half and never allowed Boston to get back into the game before ultimately putting the Green Team away, 123-116.
For the Celtics (50-29), this was yet another game in which they simply didn’t play with enough force or focus to emerge victorious.
And with only three games to play, the Celtics now find themselves just two games up on the Toronto Raptors (48-31) with three games to play.
Despite three-plus quarters of inconsistent, not-so-great basketball, the Celtics showed the kind of fight in the final minutes of play that we had not seen much of during the game.
Marcus Smart’s put-back basket of an Avery Bradley miss cut Atlanta’s lead to 111-103 with 3:51 to play, leading to an Atlanta time-out.
Boston inched a little closer on a Bradley lay-up that made it 111-105, only for the Hawks to come right back and score.
It was that kind of game for Boston, one in which they had plenty of opportunities down the stretch only to squander them away with poor play and execution.
The Celtics spent the entire third quarter trying to climb their way out of a double-digit deficit to come within 99-89 going into the fourth.
A lay-up by Avery Bradley brought Boston within 103-95 in the fourth with about eight minutes to play, only for Atlanta’s Dennis Schroder to score on a driving lay-up that put the Hawks back up by 10 points again.
It was that kind of game for the Celtics.
Boston would do some good things, seemingly on the verge of making a rally and taking control of the game only for the Hawks to get an offensive rebound and put it back in for a score, or knock down an open shot.
But the killer for Boston against the Hawks – and in many of their losses this season – was how easily the Hawks worked them over on the boards.
That more than anything else put the Celtics in a hole they just could not bounce back from.
Boston’s comeback efforts began early on.
In the first quarter, a Kelly Olynyk lay-up cut Atlanta’s lead to 20-18 in the first.
From there, it was all Atlanta as the Hawks rolled on with a 12-0 spurt and seemed on the verge of pulling away before Marcus Smart drained back-to-back 3’s that brought the Celtics within 32-24 after the first quarter.
Boston slowly cut into Atlanta’s lead, leading to a Hawks time-out with 9: 37 to play in the half after a Jae Crowder lay-up cut Atlanta’s lead down to 36-32.
The Celtics’ continued on the comeback trail, tying the game up at 38-all following a 3-pointer by Jae Crowder and later, a 3-point play by Avery Bradley (44-44).
But as the Celtics drew near, the Hawks did just enough to maintain a lead. And similar to the first half, they went on a strong surge about midway through the quarter which gave them a 54-44 lead following a 3-pointer by Kent Bazemore.
Boston head coach Brad Stevens had seen enough and called a time-out with 4:11 to play in the half.
But it did little to slow down the steadily increasing momentum of the Hawks. Atlanta took a commanding lead into the half as they looked to move one step closer towards securing a playoff berth while creating even more doubt as to how the Celtics would handle themselves in the playoffs where for the first time in the Brad Stevens era, they would go into their first round matchup as a favorite.