In addition to being a very good coach, Boston’s Brad Stevens is precise with words. After the Atlanta Hawks beat his Celtics 110-83 in Game 5, he said: “They were more physical, more aggressive. They were just BETTER.”
There aren’t supposed to be major upsets in a 4-versus-5 series, but it would be a massive stunner if the Hawks lost this now. The sounds you heard Tuesday at Philips Arena were the whoosh of the Hawks’ jet engine of an offense and the splat of the modestly appointed Celtics hitting the proverbial wall.
Boston led 20-15 after a quarter and 29-19 with six minutes remaining in the half. Given that the Hawks had missed 28 of their first 34 shots, the wonder was that the deficit wasn’t greater. But the Hawks are excellent on defense, and the Celtics — especially in a half that saw Mike Budenholzer choose to trap Isaiah Thomas on pick-and-rolls and force him to yield the ball — aren’t apt to outshoot anybody.
The Hawks are another matter. The length and breadth of their offense hadn’t been on display in the first four games. Kyle Korver was 1-for-10 from the field in Game 1; the Hawks went the final 5 1/2 minutes of the first quarter without a point in Game 2; Paul Millsap and Al Horford combined for 50 points in Game 4, with Millsap having 45 of those. Even in a tied series, even with the Celtics guarding as if lives were on the line, the feeling persisted that the Hawks were a good shooting night from blowing this series open.
This wasn’t quite that night. As Budenholzer said: “The first quarter it was contagious that we couldn’t make a shot.” But then: “In the second quarter, it got contagious that everyone was making them.”
From that 6-for-34 start, the Hawks made their next 11. They went from trailing by 10 to leading by 10 in four minutes and 51 seconds. With 5:41 remaining in the third quarter, the Hawks led by nine. At quarter’s end, they led by 27. “Once they hit a few shots,” Stevens said, “they steamrolled us.”
We present the list of Hawks who outscored Thomas — who’d had 43 points in Game 3 and hit the clinching trey in Game 4 — this night: Millsap, Korver, Kent Bazemore, Jeff Teague, Mike Scott, Dennis Schroder and …
Kris Humphries, who hadn’t played in Games 1-4 but whose consecutive 3-pointers pushed the Hawks’ lead to 32 in the fourth quarter. (It would crest at 34.) When Kim Kardashian’s ex-husband outscores the Celtics’ best player 8-7, the C’s have no chance.
Every Hawk — except Horford, who missed nine of 11 shots — was tremendous. Bazemore hit three treys in 87 seconds in that second-quarter flurry. Scott made seven of nine shots, scored 17 points and was the best player on the floor. Thabo Sefolosha finished with a plus/minus rating of plus-30. Thomas’ rating was minus-33. He left in the fourth quarter with a mild ankle sprain even as Stevens had a sub waiting at the scorer’s table.
For the Celtics, it was that kind of night. Theoretically they can still win the series, but honesty compels me to report that I can’t see that happening. With all hands on deck, the Hawks were always going to be the better team. Without Avery Bradley, they’re much the stronger side. It didn’t show in Games 3 or 4, but it showed here.
It’s difficult to imagine the Celtics rallying from this to win Game 6 in Boston. It’s unthinkable that they could win a Game 7 back here. Generally speaking, a team trailing 3-2 will take Game 6 only if it truly believes it stands a real chance in the series. After this wipeout, believing will come hard even for the men of Brad. They have to know that the Hawks are bigger and stronger and deeper … and BETTER.