We’re one game into this, and already we’ve seen how this series is apt to play out. If the Hawks can make this a beauty contest, they’ll win handily. If the Celtics can ugly it up, they have a real chance to upset the No. 4 seed. (Which, seeing as how the C’s are a No. 5, wouldn’t be that big a deal. But still.)
Game 1, Half 1: Hawks make 44.4 percent of their shots to Boston’s 23.1 percent, outrebound the visitors 26-19 and outscore them 51-34.
Game 1, Half 2: Hawks make 36.6 percent of their shots to Boston’s 50 percent, get outrebounded 24-21 and are outscored 67-51.
“A game of two halves,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer called it, hauling out Ye Olde Cliche, but it was a more a game of two styles. The Celtics played at the Hawks’ measured tempo early, and the Celtics can’t do that and win. The Hawks got sucked into the Boston whirlwind the second half and came very close to losing. They won 102-101.
Even by Hawks’ not-exactly-stellar playoff standards, a loss Saturday might have been the all-time flopalooza: From 19 points up to down 1-nil in the series. It didn’t quite happen, and credit the Hawks for that. They actually trailed in the fourth quarter but found themselves just in time. (Perhaps not coincidentally, the Celtics lost starting guard Avery Bradley to a hamstring injury as they were nosing ahead.)
The Hawks won because they’re more skilled than Boston. They blew a 19-point lead because the Celtics figured out what was working and stuck with it. Coach Brad Stevens deployed a small lineup for the game’s final 42 minutes, but it wasn’t until the final 22 that it took hold.
“The last 15 minutes of the first half, we guarded really well,” Stevens said. “We said at the half, ‘We ride this way. We guard and we grind.’ ”
In the second half, guarding and grinding yielded actual scoring. The Hawks’ pace-and-space offense was lost in the Celtics’ dust. If not for the free-throw differential in the third quarter — the Hawks took 12 to Boston’s two; in the haste to guard/grind, the Celtics put the home side in the penalty 115 seconds into the period — the C’s might have won going away.
But they didn’t, and they trail 1-nil, and it was announced Sunday that Bradley is unlikely to play again in the series. That’s not quite as devastating to the Celtics as it might be to another team: Marcus Smart, who scored 15 points Saturday, is an excellent third guard, and Stevens is clever enough to think of something.
If this sounds as if I’m giving the Hawks short shrift … well, I plead guilty. They looked great for a half. Then you looked up and they were behind. They’d insisted they were better positioned for this year’s playoffs than they were a year ago, when Budenholzer’s desire to rest players essentially dulled the edge of a 60-win team, but midway through the second half, I was thinking, “Haven’t I seen this before?”
Kyle Korver was bad in the 2015 postseason; on Saturday, he missed nine of 10 shots and all seven 3-pointers. Dennis Schroder wasn’t good in the 2015 postseason; on Saturday, he didn’t score and played only 11 minutes. Paul Millsap was indifferent in the 2015 postseason; on Saturday, he scored 14 points on 11 shots.
Yes, Al Horford and Jeff Teague and Kent Bazemore combined for 70 points, but even Bazemore’s 23-point effort was reminiscent of last season, when DeMarre Carroll — the fifth option among that All-Star-laden starting five — got a disproportionate number of shots. (He also got a fat contract from Toronto soon after.)
But enough carping. The Hawks won. Winning beats losing. Style points don’t matter in the playoffs. Only results do. The Hawks got their result. They held serve at home. On to Game 2, where more should be revealed.
Further reading: The Hawks hold on to win Game 1, if barely.