ATLANTA - They started fast, their young legs making the Celtics’ more seasoned legs look, well, old. It was part of the Hawks’ plan, to take charge early, to shoot out to a big lead, to impose their will on a team that had been resting its starters in the final days of the regular season.
It worked. And while the Hawks might not have been trying to make a statement - especially to those predicting a series win for the Celtics - a 31-point first quarter surely didn’t hurt as they took Game 1, 83-74.
“A little momentum from the regular season - I think our last few ballgames we came out pretty strong,’’ Hawks forward Joe Johnson said. “That was our main focus tonight. We wanted to come out and set the tone, dictate how we wanted the game to be played. In that first quarter, we did that.’’
That was the plan for the Hawks in the days leading up to Game 1. They wanted that good start, wanted their fans in the game, wanted to show their energy. And the Celtics’ rust might have played into that early.
“I thought we did a good job of pushing the tempo of the game,’’ Atlanta coach Larry Drew said. “We wanted to dictate the rhythm of the game, getting out and running, and exploiting what we had in transition.
“That first quarter was at a pace that - I don’t know if we’re accustomed to playing that way all the time - but it was a point of emphasis, getting stops and just getting out and running.’’
It didn’t last. The Celtics made their run, outscoring the Hawks in the final three quarters. But the hole was too much for them to climb back. And so the Hawks’ desire to start fast and stay fast worked for them in the first game, bolstered by 9 of Josh Smith’s 22 points.
“That’s how we want to come out every game, make them get up and down the floor,’’ Johnson said. “We don’t want to play a slow-down, grind game, halfcourt. That’s playing into their hands. We really have to get out early and push.’’
That wasn’t the case in the third quarter, when the Hawks did what they have done in the past, what they didn’t do in the first quarter. They came out flat, allowing the Celtics to score the first two buckets, while the Hawks took nearly five minutes to score their second field goal of the period.
The second half, in many ways, seemed more like survival for the home team. Atlanta allowed the Celtics back in the game, allowed chances for the Celtics to bring the lead below 10, to get closer and closer.
But while the final three quarters might not have been their best basketball, it also didn’t need to be. Not after that start.
“We responded to their run, which I was very proud of,’’ Drew said. “Hopefully we can continue playing at a pace that we can dictate.’’
There was a question of whether it was important to the Hawks to make their detractors take notice. They have, after all, been generally regarded as the underdog in this series.
Drew, though, said he has not heard a peep to that effect from his rather quiet team. Not even a whisper of being upset or feeling disrespected.
“We don’t listen to the naysayers,’’ Johnson said. “The game is played out there on the court, not on paper. We’re going to do whatever it takes now to try to advance to the next round.’’
There were many positives for the Hawks, including their fast start and their ability to withstand the Celtics’ charge. And while there were also negatives for the Hawks - they did let the Celtics cut the deficit from 19 points to just 4 in the final minute - Smith made a point of talking about one in particular, one that didn’t happen on the court.
They were happy with how the fast start brought the fans into the game. Problem was, there weren’t quite enough of them, even though it was announced as a sellout. Perhaps, Smith said, it’s something that could be ameliorated for Game 2.
“This is just one game,’’ Smith said. “You know that they’re going to make adjustments going into the second game. We’ve just got to be able to come out with the same momentum, the same energy. I saw a couple of seats that were open tonight. If we could fill those up, that would be great.’’Amalie Benjamin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.