The points seemed to flow with ease for both Boston and Atlanta in the first half of their Saturday night matchup.
But the second half was a defensive struggle for both teams, the kind of game that speaks to both being among the NBA’s better defensive squads.
Boston made its share of good plays in the fourth quarter, but the Hawks made more, which would prove to be the difference as Atlanta pulled away for a 118-107 win.
Not only did Saturday’s loss snap Boston’s four-game winning streak, but it also dealt a serious blow to the Celtics’ chances of landing the No. 3 seed in the East. Boston (47-33) has now lost the head-to-head series with Atlanta (48-32) with two games remaining against Charlotte and Miami on Monday and Wednesday, respectively.
Arguably the biggest play of the game was a steal by Jeff Teague that led to completing a 3-point play that put the Hawks ahead 110-103.
The Celtics called a time-out with more than three minutes to play, but it didn’t matter.
At no point in the final three minutes did they regain the composure needed to mount a rally as the Hawks continued to surge ahead for a win that strengthens their grip on being the No. 3 seed in the East when the playoffs begin in about a week.
For most of the game, it was an exercise in what has worked all season for the Hawks and to a certain degree, what continues to keep the Celtics close – but not close enough – to being one of the upper-echelon teams in the East.
Atlanta’s strength all season has been their versatility at getting contributions from a variety of players. They did not disappoint on Saturday with 10 players seeing action in the first half, and finishing with five double-figure scorers led by Paul Millsap’s double-double of 31 points and 16 points.
Boston also had a number of players chip in scoring the ball, with the biggest surprise being Marcus Smart.
Smart, who has shot 23.1 percent from 3-point range this month – an improvement over the 14.0 percent he shot on 3s in March – was on top of his long-ball game on Saturday. It was Smart’s shooting that kept the Celtics relatively close as he scored 14 of his 19 points in the first half and finished shooting 4-for-6 on 3s.
For most of the game, it was very much a game of exchanging runs.
In the third quarter, Boston went on a 14-5 run that put Boston ahead 87-75. Atlanta immediately countered with an 18-4 run which gave the Hawks a 93-91 lead going into the fourth. One of the reasons for Boston’s second half struggles to score – they only had 36 points in the second half – was Atlanta clamping down on the Celtics’ 3-point shooting.
And as we have seen this season, most of Boston’s losses this season have come on nights when their shot-making inexplicably disappears at critical moments … like the fourth quarter.
In the first half, Boston was 10-for-19 on 3s. In the second half, they were just 1-for-9 with the lone make coming in the final minutes from R.J. Hunter when the game was all but decided.