The Atlanta Hawks are now on the brink of a second round matchup against the Cleveland Cavaliers, as they blew out the Celtics 110-83 in Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead. The Celtics were led by Evan Turner’s 15 points while the Hawks were led by Mike Scott’s — yes, Mike Scott’s Game 5 game high — 17 points. The scene now shifts to Boston for Game 6 where the Hawks will have the chance to close out the Celtics for good on Thursday night.
Limiting Isaiah Thomas
Heading into Game 5, Isaiah Thomas wasn’t just the top scorer of this series, but the top scorer of the entire playoffs, averaging 28 points. After he averaged 35 points between Games 3 and 4, the Hawks had an adjustment waiting for Thomas. A lot more trapping and double team action.
They basically forced Thomas to give up the ball and said to the other Celtics “Hey, you go make a play, you make this shot”.
And the Hawks set this tone very early in the game. Here, they try to trap Thomas by extending the double team near the halfway line. Thomas is forced to give the ball up, forcing Jae Crowder and Amir Johnson to try and make a play. In the end, Johnson gets tied up with Bazemore for a jump ball.
If the Celtics make plays without Thomas being involved, that’s fine. The Hawks, for the most part, will be happy with other Celtics making shots and plays that aren’t made by Isaiah Thomas. Anyone but him. Again, the Hawks extend their pressure and force Thomas to give the ball up. Crowder receives the ball, drives toward the rim, and flushes it home.
This play was more so created by Marcus Smart, who uses his muscular body to create space for Crowder to drive into. And if you’re the Hawks that’s fine, you can live with this. You’ve forced Thomas to give up the ball and make someone else try and do something, and the Celtics did on this occasion.
“To be honest, obviously it was a good thing for us to get the ball out of his hands and not letting him be that controller on the offensive end for them and making other guys have to make plays and make shots. It was good for us but really this was Game 5. It was a big game and everybody came ready to play.” — Thabo Sefolosha
With Amir Johnson on the floor the Hawks can afford to just continue this aggressive pressure on Thomas, as Johnson is only really effective (and this isn’t a shot at Amir, he has been great in this series) near the rim because he can’t really exploit the space around the three-point line once the double on Thomas occurs, as he isn’t really an outside shooter. The Celtics inserted Kelly Olynyk — who is a much better outside shooter who could exploit the Hawks for their double teams — into the game, but this didn’t stop the Hawks from attacking Thomas. Thomas, again, is doubled and forced to give the ball up. He throws a dangerous pass that is picked off, starting a new attack for the Hawks.
“He trapped a lot of Isaiah’s pick and rolls. They were very extended on that which forces other guys to handle.” — Brad Stevens
“We got back to what we were doing in Games 1 & 2, showing him a crowd and trying to let the other guys beat us” — Kent Bazemore
With Thomas being forced to give up the ball, his touches (and with it his overall influence on the game) were limited. In Game 4 he registered 93 touches, but in Game 5 his number of touches was reduced to 74. You don’t need to have a degree in mathematics to notice the difference between the two games and how that influences a game.
Brad Stevens was happy that Thomas was able to just get rid of the ball as well as he did.
“I thought Isaiah did a really good job of just getting rid of the ball. That’s what you have to do when you’re being trapped, and making the right basketball play. In that first 18 minutes, I thought we were playing really well.” — Coach Brad Stevens
Isaiah Thomas was held scoreless in the first half (only attempting four shots) and was eventually held to just seven points on 3-of-12 shooting. Kyle Korver and the Hawks know that the Celtics will make their adjustments for Game 6, and that they’ll be ready for them.
“I think it was a different look that we hadn’t used as much in the series. It was a good adjustment. He has obviously been huge in this series. He’s a handful. We try to make it as tough as we can on him. Jeff did a great job of trying to deny him the ball as much as he could and then we had a lot of guys, our bigs are so good at coming up there and blitzing it. Tonight it worked. I’m sure they’ll make adjustments and we’ll have to be ready for it in Game 6.” — Kyle Korver
Bench helps finally arrives
The Hawks bench has struggled in this series. Yes, Mike Scott had a great Game 1 (14 points on 6-of-9 shooting) and Dennis Schröder added 20 points in Game 3 but the bench, as a collective unit, have struggled. If there has been a solid bench contribution in this series, it has come because one player did the heavy lifting (Scott Game 1, Schröder Game 3)
Last night, however, the Hawks bench (again, as a collective unit) finally showed up. Counting the first three quarters (since the game was a blowout by the time the fourth quarter arrived), the bench contributed for 28 points, 14 rebounds, nine assists, and four steals. Mike Scott led the bench with 15 points in the first three quarters (17 in total for the game), and he was pretty aggressive — a point of emphasis.
“I don’t think I was aggressive in Boston for those two games.”
“My teammates always tell me if I ever get a mismatch, score, do what you do. Sometimes I’m not aggressive. Tonight I saw red.” — Mike Scott
Dennis Schröder had a decent game, adding nine points to the cause, while Thabo Sefolosha definitely (and it’s not even close) had his best game of the series with six points, five rebounds, six assists, three steals, and a game high plus/minus rating of plus-30.
It was great for the Hawks that their bench was able to come in and actually make a difference in this series because, besides Marcus Smart, the Hawks have more difference makers that come off the bench that Boston does. When Mike Scott is firing he’s a real threat, Dennis can come in and swing games, and you know Thabo is going to bring his defensive prowess and that’s great, but if he can hit shots that’s even better.
Al Horford was delighted with the bench effort last night, but particularly more with Mike Scott.
“The fact that Mike Scott was able to come in and bring that spark. That’s big. That’s really big. Thabo his activity and his energy and Dennis as well. It goes a long way but I’m just really proud of how Mike Scott came in and responded tonight.” — Al Horford
Flicking the switch in the second quarter
The Hawks did not start this game off in spectacular fashion, as they did in Games 1 and 2. They began the game 1-for-7 from the floor, and found themselves (miraculously) down by just eight points in the second quarter — without any sign of an offensive breakthrough — when Mike Budenholzer called for a timeout with 5:41 remaining in the second quarter. At that point of the game, the Celtics led 29-21, and the Hawks were shooting 20% (7-of-35) from the field and 16% from three (2-of-12). Their one saving grace was that Boston hadn’t been able to punish the Hawks for their poor shooting.
“…I think we just needed to breathe a little bit.” — Coach Mike Budenholzer
After that timeout, the Hawks that gathered into that huddle were very different from the ones that emerged from it. They would make their next 10 shots in the quarter (shooting 10-of-11 to finish the quarter, a Teague shot at the buzzer the only miss afterwards), and knocked down all five of their three-pointers, including three from Kent Bazemore.
These three’s in particular from Bazemore blew the game wide open, and the Hawks would head into the locker room with a 47-39 lead. Kent Bazemore, post game, said that the tide began to turn when the Hawks decided to “just let it fly”.
“It’s definitely contagious but what I thought changed was, we just said ‘Just let it fly.’ I think we loosened up a little bit in the second quarter. Guys were just more aggressive shooting shots. I think the huddle, we understand, we’ve been there so many times, where the defense has been stellar but we haven’t been able to make shots. We got to the point tonight, where it’s just ‘Man, just go out and let it go.’” — Kent Bazemore
That switch remained jammed on in the third quarter, as the Hawks poured out 42 points, putting this game beyond the reach of Boston by the fourth quarter.
“I don’t think they missed for an hour. What could you possibly do?” — Evan Turner
Moving the ball
Having averaged 25.6 assists per game in the regular season (second most in the entire league), the Hawks haven’t been able to replicate that success in the first four games of this series, averaging 20 assists per game. Last night they produced their best assisting night, recording 30 assists. In fact, every single Hawks bar Kent Bazemore registered at least one assist. Even the end of the bench guys like Lamar Patterson and Kris Humhpries registered an assist.
The ball movement really stretched the Hawks and as a result the Hawks were left with quite a few open three-point attempts. According to the hustle stats, the Celtics only contested 17 of the 35 Hawks’ three-point attempts. This is what Atlanta’s ball movement does, creates open shots and last night the Hawks were able to knock them down — 14-of-35 from behind the arc.
Isaiah Thomas’ ankle tweak
In the fourth quarter, Isaiah Thomas re-tweaked his ankle, which he revealed he had tweaked in Game 4. He had to intentionally foul in order to leave the game, and headed straight for the Celtics locker room. Despite not returning to the game, Thomas was adamant he will play in Game 6.
“I’m playing no matter what. I’m not going to sit out. I just tweaked it. I tweaked it in Game 4 as well in the fourth quarter so I just tweaked it again. And it hurt right when it happened but I came back here and I’ll be all right.” — Isaiah Thomas
Why was Thomas even on the floor at that point? The Hawks were up 93-64 at the time of the injury. The question was posed to Coach Stevens after the game.
“I think that’s a very valid question. With this team, I’ve seen just enough crazy stuff to think that we might be able to get back in (to the game), and give him a chance from 12 (minutes) to nine or eight (minutes) to see if it could happen. He actually had a sub at the table when it happened. So I know that’s quite a task and quite a mountain to overcome, but we’ve all seen this team do some pretty crazy things when we’re down.” — Coach Brad Stevens
Given how often the Celtics have made a comeback in this series, you can’t blame Brad Stevens for leaving Thomas on the floor as long as he did. As he mentioned, he had a sub ready for Thomas but he happened to tweak his ankle just before that, that’s just unfortunate timing.
Either way, he’s not missing Game 6 and it’ll be interesting to see if the injury has affected his mobility and to what degree if that is the case.
Just to round things up…
There was a play from last night that had me in stitches laughing. The Celtics have possession of the ball, move it around — you know, standard stuff — and eventually it ends up in the hands of Jared Sullinger behind the three-point line. For some reason, both Al Horford and Paul Millsap decided they just had to contest this Jared Sullinger three — a shot he made at a 28% clip in the regular season.
Good job, Paul and Al. Way to close out the lethal three-point threat that is Jared Sullinger together.