The Atlanta Hawks took one giant step forward in realising their goal of home court advantage following a 118-107 home victory against the Boston Celtics, in what was the Hawks’ final home game of the regular season. The Celtics were led by Marcus Smart’s 19 points off of the Boston bench, while the Hawks were led by a monster effort from Paul Millsap — 31 points and 16 rebounds.
The night before this game, the Miami Heat dropped a game in Orlando against the Magic, relinquishing Miami’s control of the third seed as they own the tie breaker over the Hawks. That loss, and this Hawks win, effectively means that the third seed in the East is now, officially, Atlanta’s to lose. The Hawks now have a one game advantage over the Celtics and the Heat with just two games remaining, meaning the magic number for the Hawks to clinch home court advantage is just one.
The victory also secured the season series against the Celtics, 3-1, meaning that Atlanta wins outright over the Celtics in any tie breaker situation.
A game of two halves
A very standard cliché to use when talking about any sport that is divided into halves, but it really rang true last night for this game.
In the first half, the Celtics put 71 points on the board, which was a very uncharacteristic number of points for the Hawks to concede, given their defensive identity. However, there was a good reason as to why the Celtics scored so many first half points — they caught fire from beyond the arc, shooting 58% (10-of-17) including four three-pointers from Marcus Smart, who prior to this game shot 24% from behind the arc. Fortunately for the Hawks, they were as hot as the Celtics were, and also shot a very high percentage from behind the arc — 52%. As such, they only trailed by four points (71-67) heading into the locker room at the half.
With such a high scoring half, the stakes for home court advantage high, and margin for error so fine, it was clear that whichever team was able to turn the defensive screw in the second half would have the best shot at victory. It didn’t look good for the Hawks in the third quarter (who shot 30% in the first 6:30 of the third quarter), as they struggled to break down the Celtics, whose halftime adjustments appeared to be more effective than Atlanta’s. The Celtics rushed out to a 12 point lead, and Coach Bud called for a timeout.
Out of the timeout the Hawks reeled an immediate 8-0 run to make it a four point game in what was, arguably, the most important stretch of the game for the Hawks, who did not look great in the third quarter until after that timeout. It was the Hawks who were the ones to turn the defensive screw — holding the Celtics to just 36 points (after scoring 39 in the second quarter) on 30% shooting in the second half. Boston’s three-point success abandoned them, and they would only make one three-pointer (1-for-11) in the entire second half. The Hawks, meanwhile, were able to keep that part of the offense rolling, and they shot 7-of-14 from behind the arc in the second half.
The defensive adjustments the Hawks made at the half, eventually, shone the brighter in the second half, as two of the best coaches in the NBA went head-to-head last night.
“Sometimes there are subtle (defensive) changes. Every team does things different in pick-and-rolls. You try to have a full things you can use. To be honest with you, we looked at some clips at halftime. There were some basic breakdowns and some amazing shot-making. We just thought if we could reduce our mistakes and not give them some of those open looks and some of those opportunities. If they are making tough shots then you tip your hat to them. But there were some basic, fundamental mistakes, for sure on our end.” — Coach Mike Budenholzer
“It was a fast-paced game tonight and we had to be able to defend the three-point line. Part of defending the 3-point line is you have to play smaller, and play more guys who are going to guard perimeter guys. That was part of it.” — Coach Brad Stevens
All-Star center, Al Horford, said the key to the Hawks’ defensive success in the second half was their increase in energy, but gave credit to Boston’s hot shooting.
“…more than anything we just picked up our energy. We were more focused and kept doing what we were doing. The first half, they shot lights out. They were great.”— Al Horford
Boston forward Jae Crowder said that the team was “very encouraged” that they were almost able to win this game with the “wrinkle” that Coach Stevens threw at the Hawks.
“The last game we played them they killed us on our pick-and-roll coverage with pocket passes and stuff like that. So Coach did a great job of throwing a wrinkle at them, and they adjusted. But we did have a chance to win the game with the wrinkle we threw at them. And we were very encouraged with that.” — Jae Crowder
Crowder’s choice of words are interesting here. This was the last regular season game between these two teams. The only way they could meet again this season is in the playoffs. It seems as though Crowder fully expects to meet Atlanta in the playoffs, at some point, and build on the “encouragement” of their “wrinkle”. We shall see…
Limiting Isaiah Thomas
This season, Celtics guard (and All-Star) Isaiah Thomas is averaging 22 points and six assists per game, leading the Boston Celtics in scoring by over seven points. He’s the main man to slow down when the Celtics roll into town and last night, just a couple of nights after holding DeMar DeRozan to a 7-of-24 shooting night, the Hawks held Thomas to just 16 points on 6-of-19 shooting.
Thomas’ impact in this game was quite limited, and the Hawks did a great job defending him. We’re going to take a look at a whole bunch of different things the Hawks did the slow Thomas down. Settle in, because there’s quite a bit to go through.
Generally speaking, Thomas is looking to drive toward the rim — it’s his greatest strength. As you can see by looking at his shot chart for the season, the vast majority of his field goal attempts and makes come at the rim. He also averages 6.2 free throw attempts per game.
In this first sequence, Kent Bazemore does a good job taking away the driving lane which, as noted by Bob Rathbun, is where he wants to go. After an exchange of possession with Amir Johnson, Thomas tries again to get to the rim. Al Horford helps Bazemore by taking away that driving lane. Thomas, now doubled by Bazemore and Horford, takes a few steps in and rises to attempt a shot. As he does so, Horford raises his arms, and is in prime position to swat any shot. Thomas now realises this, and tries — in mid-air — to find another teammate. However, the only teammate he can find his Eastern Conference All-Star teammate Paul Millsap, who picks off the pass and runs the floor for the easy dunk.
The Hawks defense forced Thomas to bail on his shot attempt and try to find a teammate to pass the ball to, all in a split second. Good defense from the Hawks, forcing Thomas to pass the ball and the result is a turnover and two easy points.
In this next sequence, Thomas has possession of the ball, and takes it up the court. However, Jeff Teague proves quite the nuisance for Thomas, and makes life a bit uncomfortable for him as he bobbles upon his arrival at the elbow. Thanks to Teague, Thomas has run into one, rather two, very large problems in Al Horford and Paul Millsap.
Yeah… Good luck getting through that. Thomas is — again — forced to give the ball up. This time, he is able to find a teammate, but Sullinger’s jumper is off.
As Mike Glenn eluded to, Teague’s defense forced Thomas into an area where there was no possible chance of success, and this forced him to give the ball up. Again, the Hawks did a good job getting the ball out of Thomas’ hands.
In this play, Thomas is, again, cut off by Kent Bazemore, and shows him exactly the area he wants him to drive toward. (A) Right into Hawks’ bigs in Millsap and Horford, and (B) to Thomas’ weaker right hand and take away his stronger left hand.
Either he’s going to run into a Millsap and Horford sandwich, or he’s taking a tough shot with his right hand that’s probably going to be blocked. In the end, Thomas gives it up to Sullinger. However, when Sullinger attempts to return the ball to Thomas, the pass is picked off by Bazemore, and he races down the other end for the easy layup.
When you take the ball out of Thomas’ hands, good things happen for you. By taking the ball out of the ball handler’s hands and putting it into a big’s hands, you create the possibility of a turnover, as bigs aren’t usually known for their ball handling and passing.
In the final sequence of “Forcing the Pass”, Thomas, again, is looking to get to the hoop. A solid Marcus Smart screen opens the lane for Thomas, but he is met by Horford. With Horford cutting off the driving lane, and slowing Thomas in the process, Teague is able to recover and create some pressure from behind. Thomas attempts to beat Horford, but when he sees Horford rise to block his shot, he quickly gets rid of it. He finds Amir Johnson who on this occasion is able to finish the play.
Although Johnson scored on this possession, you’re forcing Thomas to give up the ball and forcing someone else to make a play/shot instead. If Johnson makes that shot, he makes it — better than IT getting to the rim for a layup.
And when Thomas did try his luck at the rim, his life was made pretty difficult — his layup attempts were swatted on a number of occasions.
Thomas’ final shot chart for the game shows how much he really struggled around his favorite area — 4-of-14.
“…For some reason, I just couldn’t make any layups. I guess you have days like that, but you have to bounce back.” — Isaiah Thomas
As you may have noticed, Thomas didn’t see an awful lot of success with his perimeter jump shot either. The Hawks made a concerted effort to contest any jump shots as best as they could.
The Hawks also made life hard for Thomas when it came to simply bringing the ball up the floor, creating turnovers. These turnovers came at critical times in the game, favoring the Hawks.
In this first sequence, Paul Millsap just banked home a three-point shot that tied the game, in the same quarter that the Celtics led by as many as 12. The ball is inbounded, and Thomas is hounded by Schröder, who forces Thomas into a very dangerous area of the court. Millsap arrives on the scene and, uses his “******* amazing hands” to steal the ball from Isaiah. After exchanging possession with Schröder, Millsap cashes in on the turnover, putting the Hawks up by two points heading into the fourth quarter.
When Thomas doesn’t even get the chance to run the offense — let alone shoot — that’s the best possible outcome for the Hawks. Brilliant defensive pressure from Dennis (who had a much better game last night than he has had of late) and Millsap in order to create the turnover.
In this final sequence, Teague has just had a shot blocked. Crowder grabs the rebound, and hands the ball to his point guard. Thomas takes the ball up the court and attempts to cross Teague, but Teague strips the ball away from him, and darts down the other end. Crowder tries to prevent him from scoring, fouls him, and Teague gets the layup to drop — and one.
A hugely important basket in this game that came near the beginning of a 13-1 run that would put away the Celtics for good. But again, Thomas’ was made to feel the pressure from the Hawks’ defense.
Thomas was, naturally, very frustrated with his performance, especially in a game as important as this was to the Celtics.
“It hurt me. Just because in the position we’re in, we needed this win. We were up 12 at one point, and then the fourth quarter we just couldn’t make shots. It was tough for us. It was a tough game for myself and I’m very frustrated with it. It hurt.” — Isaiah Thomas
For the Hawks, however, it was a job well done. On a night when Marcus Smart got hot, and the threes rained in the first half, limiting Isaiah Thomas was the key to this victory. If he had been the one to get hot in the first, it may have been game over.