Hawks vs. Celtics — Things of Note

Graham Chapple —  January 14, 2017

Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks’ seven game winning streak came to an end on Friday night as they dropped an entertaining game against the Boston Celtics, 103-101. Isaiah Thomas led the Celtics with 28 points — including the game winner — while Kelly Olynyk poured out 26 points off the bench.

Look who’s back

We had to wait until January but last night the Hawks finally got to see Al Horford return to Atlanta for the first time as a Celtic. When he was introduced, and again throughout the game, there were quite a number of boos for Horford, something that took him by surprise.

“They were unexpected. I don’t want to say anything, but it is what it is. I know there’s a lot of fans out there that appreciated my time here, and I appreciate them.” — Al Horford

The Hawks did have a video tribute lined up and it was shown at the end of the first quarter. Horford was given a standing ovation.

For the game, Horford scored 10 points on 4-of-8 shooting, collected six rebounds and added a steal and a block. The Celtics were motivated to get this win for Al, who was the topic of the discussion postgame:

“All we wanted (was a win for Al). That’s all we wanted. I heard a few boos at the beginning when they called his name but I’m glad they appreciated him when they did a standing ovation because he’s a hell of a – not just basketball player, but hell of a guy. And we needed to get that win for him. We knew it was big for him.” “You don’t boo a guy like that. You’re not turning down money like that. None of them people booing are turning down that money. He went to a situation, thought it was maybe a little better. And like I said, a guy like that, with that type of character, you can’t boo. That’s disrespectful.” — Isaiah Thomas

Interesting that Thomas mentioned the money side of things…

“We really wanted to dig this one out for Al. He really deserved it.” — Kelly Olynyk

I personally didn’t like that Horford was booed as much as he was but you do bring it on to yourself (to a certain extent) when you sign for a rival like the Celtics, who have a lot of recent beef with the Hawks. It was fun to see Paul Millsap guard him though. When two former teammates come up against each other in a battle like that, it’s fascinating to see, fascinating to think about how this situation (Millsap guarding Al) came about and what led to it.

This was the first of three meetings between the Hawks and Celtics this season. The Hawks will visit the Celtics on February 27th before the Celtics make another trip to Philips Arena on April 6th.

Comeback falls short

Even though this was a tough loss for fans to swallow, they can be proud of the fight their team showed. The Hawks were up against it very early on, Boston couldn’t miss a three in the first quarter, racing to a 15 point lead. But the Hawks kept at it, and a 9-0 run in the second quarter by the Hawks tied this game all up at 42-42 before the Celtics went on a little run to take a 48-44 lead at the half.

But things got out of hand in the third quarter and all the Hawks’ good work to get themselves back into the game was undone. The Celtics led 55-50 with 9:18 left in the third quarter before they reeled off a 22-7 run to take a 20 point lead. The Hawks trimmed this lead to 13 points heading into the fourth quarter but they were still left with a lot of work to do.

The Celtics led by as many as 16 points in the fourth quarter and that’s when the bench made a run. Tim Hardaway Jr. and Malcolm Delaney poured out fantastic fourth quarters (15 Q4 points for THJ, 10 for Delaney), spearheading a very unlikely Atlanta comeback.

The Hawks eventually tied the game with a brilliant, clutch Paul Millsap three with 25 seconds remaining in the fourth, only for Isaiah Thomas to break Atlanta hearts by sinking the game winner with 2.4 seconds remaining.

The Hawks were unable to take the game to overtime and that’s how their seven game win streak ended.

“They played better for more of the 48 minutes than we did. We had a 15-minute stretch were a lot of things on both ends of the court, we did pretty well. But for the rest of the game….they shot it well. They moved it well. They did a lot of things. It was a heck of a comeback. It was a heck of a game. We’ll learn from it. We’ll be better going forward.” — Coach Mike Budenholzer

To be honest, the Hawks should’ve never been in a position to win this game. Some ridiculous threes that shouldn’t have gone down, went down. But what was encouraging was the play of THJ. The three-ball wasn’t falling so Timmy took it to the rim and was effective. I woke up this morning and saw that THJ had scored 23 points and my first thought was “Wow, how many threes did he make? 5? 6?” But no, he only made three threes, the rest of his points all came at the rim/line.

“We just played with momentum. We kept running, getting open looks, when we got open lanes we drove hard. We finished the play, made the extra pass and when made open shots.” — Tim Hardaway Jr.

The first game at home after a long road trip tends to be a letdown game. Despite that, you were left thinking “maybe the Hawks could’ve won this game if it weren’t for…”

Boston’s three-point party

Forget containing Isaiah Thomas, this was the reason the Hawks lost last night. The Celtics made 17 three-pointers on 44 (FOURTY-FOUR!!) attempts. This was the ninth time this season that Boston made 17 or more three-pointers in a game and the sixth time in the last seven games. We’re going to have a look at some of these threes. The five examples I’ve lined up pretty much cover all 17 of Boston’s threes.

The Celtics caught fire in the first quarter, shooting 8-of-11 from behind the arc. As is the case when a team catches fire, they make tough shots and that’s what Jae Crowder does here. In transition the C’s push it up the floor, Marcus Smart finds Crowder, whose shot is contested by Baze but it didn’t matter. Splash.

Boston — and Isaiah Thomas in particular — made a number of tough, contested threes and you just have to live with those.

Pre-game, Coach Bud mentioned that he wanted to put a lot of pressure on Isaiah Thomas. What instantly came to my mind was Game 5 of the playoffs last season when the Hawks started blitzing Thomas pick-and-rolls. Example:

Sure enough, we saw a good bit of this in the first quarter last night. The idea with this approach is that you take the ball out of IT’s hands and make another player either make a play or make a shot. And that’s what the Celtics did last night.

Dennis and Dwight try to extend similar pressure here but Thomas is able to turn the corner enough draw Paul Millsap away from his man, Kelly Olynyk. Millsap has to act as the rim protecter in these situations when Dwight is pressing like this, that’s why Kelly Olynyk — off of the fantastic Thomas pass — is wide open and he knocks down the three.

So, this isn’t a bad defensive breakdown that led to this three, just a product of the defensive scheme the Hawks took with Thomas. If Olynyk makes that shot, you just have to accept that. That’s what this system is supposed to do: make other Celtic players — not named Isaiah Thomas — create/make shots.

The Hawks tried this a few times in the first quarter but kept getting burned. Mike Muscala and Dennis double Thomas off of the pick-and-roll. Olynyk fades to the three-point line, received the ball from Thomas and drains another three.

We saw much less of this approach from the Hawks after the first quarter.

Some of Boston’s threes came about from the spacing — and of course shooting — that Al Horford provides. At the end of the second quarter, Horford plants himself behind the three-point line. Dwight Howard is guarding Al on this possession and he knows that Horford is a three-point threat, so he is drawn out of the paint and away from the rim. Again, Millsap acts as the rim protecter and has to offer some help to Malcolm Delaney, who is being backed down by the stockier Smart. This leaves Kelly Olynyk open in the corner. He’s found by Smart and knocks down the open three.

This is created by Al Horford’s spacing. If Al wasn’t capable of hitting that shot, Dwight could just leave him be and play the role Millsap plays in this possession, leaving Millsap free to stick near Olynyk. This is something that the Hawks have really missed this season.

A team doesn’t hit 17 threes without a few defensive breakdowns from the opposing team. On this play, both Kent Bazemore and Dwight Howard leave their men (Jae Crowder and Kelly Olynyk). Smart kicks it out to a wide open Jae Crowder — who could’ve passed up this open shot for another open shot in the form of Olynyk if he wanted to — and he hits the three.

There is no need for Baze to come and help in this situation. Not enough of a need to leave someone that open, especially on a night where everything is going in for the Celtics from behind the arc.

Those five examples pretty much cover all of Boston’s threes: hitting contested shots, the defensive scheme that takes the ball out of IT’s hands and forces others to make shots (which they did), Al Horford’s spacing and defensive errors.

“A lot of made 3’s. Some good looks. Some tough ones. They executed well. Both the second quarter, the end of the third quarter and the fourth quarter we were able to get the 3-point line under control. Isaiah Thomas hit a couple of them where I wish we were up and made him drive and take the 3-point line away from him.” — Coach Mike Budenholzer

Although 17 made threes for the Celtics looks bad for the Hawks, this wasn’t as nearly as bad as when they conceded 15 threes against the Timberwolves on December 26th. Those were just terrible threes to give up (not getting back in transition, etc.) whereas with this game it was Boston’s good spacing, ATL’s defensive scheme and the fire that the Celtics caught that led to their threes. Not ideal, of course, but not as bad as that Minny game.

Disappointing point guard battle

Many people were expectant of a great point guard matchup between Dennis Schröder and Isaiah Thomas but they never got it. Thomas did his part but Dennis really struggled to make an impact in this game. Early foul trouble limited Schröder’s minutes but when he did play he couldn’t get anything going, scoring just four points on 2-of-11 shooting in 22 minutes. Schröder didn’t see a single minute of play in the fourth quarter, Coach Bud riding with Malcolm Delaney who had a great game.

Postgame, Schröder told reporters that Thomas had said things about his mother and his family.

“I’m playing basketball. If he think that he got to curse at my mom or say some dumb stuff about my family, that has nothing to do with basketball. That’s his choice. I’ve got too much class for that. Next one, we are going to get it.” — Dennis Schröder

Thomas, in Tweets sent to Chris Vivlamore of the AJC, denied saying anything of the sort.

It’s unfortunate that this is the Isaiah-Schröder discussion that we’re having postgame, not how the two competed against each other on the court. Maybe next time…

Pre-game, Thomas added a little more fuel to the fire of hate that burns in Hawks fans for him by wearing a Seattle Seahawks (the team the Atlanta Falcons play in the playoffs later today) jumper to shootaround.

Dunleavy’s debut

Acquired in the Kyle Korver trade, Mike Dunleavy made his Hawks debut last night in strange circumstances. Dunleavy’s first involvement in this game came near the end of the third quarter as the Hawks were trailing by 20 with Coach Bud looking for a lineup that would work.

In 14 minutes of play, Dunleavy scored six points on 2-of-3 shooting. What stood out to was his movement off the ball. Paul Millsap said on Thursday that Dunleavy was a fast learner and that certainly seemed to be the case based on last night’s showing. Dunleavy has played this game for a long time. He knows what to do and where to be.

Look at this off-ball movement from Dunleavy (wearing number 34) last night.

I think Dunleavy will fit in just fine with the Hawks, that kind of movement and cutting will certainly help this team.

When he was called upon, Dunleavy was ready. Ready to knock down some threes and he made two big threes last night including this one to cut the Boston lead to just two points:

The Kyle Korver hangover may not last too long if Dunleavy can hit his threes the way he has in seasons past (hovering just above and below 40% in recent seasons).

Throwback jerseys

Last night was High Voltage Night at Philips Arena and the Hawks donned the blue and green Hawks jerseys from when Pete Maravich played with the Hawks.

At halftime the Hawks announced that they will be retiring Maravich’s number 44 on March 3rd against the Cleveland Cavaliers, so it seems we will see these jerseys at least one more time.

I thought these looked fantastic. What did you think?

Up next

The Hawks (22-17) are back in action at Philips Arena on Sunday when they’ll take on the Milwaukee Bucks for the third time this season.

Game stats: NBA.com
Hawks quotes: The AJC via Chris Vivlamore
More Hawks quotes: Peachtree Hoops via Kris Willis
Celtics quotes: MassLive.com via Jay King

Graham Chapple