The Hawks had thought that the return of Josh Smith would be the difference in Game 4 Sunday against the Celtics, that they could contain Rajon Rondo, that they could bring the series back to Atlanta tied at two games apiece. They had seemed confident, had acted confident, had appeared to know what needed to be done.
The Hawks had not emerged from Friday night’s Game 3 cowed, despite losing. They believed that if they could take the Celtics to overtime without their top three big men, they could win with at least one of them on the floor.
They couldn’t, disappearing almost from the start in a 101-79 loss at TD Garden.
“We were beaten in every phase of the game,’’ Hawks coach Larry Drew said. “It started the first six minutes of the game. We did not respond very well to the pressure, to the aggressiveness that they were playing with.
“I just didn’t think we responded well at all.’’
The Hawks had acknowledged before Game 4 that it was a must-win game. As Joe Johnson had said, “We can’t go back to Atlanta down 3-1.’’
But they did, and now can only look toward Tuesday’s Game 5.
“This is a must-win game,’’ Smith said of Game 5. “We’re fighting hard right now. There shouldn’t be no quit in this team. We have to go out Tuesday and establish ourselves early. We have to get a win and try to force a sixth game.’’
The Hawks appeared entirely out of sorts, starting from the opening tip, unable to defend a Celtics team that simply couldn’t miss. Smith looked slow. So did Al Horford, making his comeback after missing four months because of a torn pectoral.
There were too many breakdowns, Drew said. Too many bad shots. Too many giveaways. Too little defense.
“We found ourselves playing catch-up basketball the whole time,’’ Drew said. “We just didn’t respond very well. I haven’t seen that type of performance in our team in quite some time.’’
Perhaps not this season. It was the type of performance the Hawks seemed to have moved beyond - until it came back at the worst possible time.
“I really can’t,’’ said Horford when asked to explain why Atlanta played so poorly. “I’m trying to sit here and look at it, but the only thing I can tell is from the beginning of the game, from jump off, they established themselves. They came out way more aggressive. I think that we were on our heels from that point on.
“Can’t do that. Can’t do that in the playoffs.’’
The Hawks played sloppily, with 18 turnovers in the game, leading to 18 points for the Celtics. And though they shot 40.8 percent, they also allowed Boston to shoot 51.3 percent, 60 percent through three quarters.
And most of all, they couldn’t slow Rondo, after emphasizing in the days leading up to the game that that had to be their priority. The Celtics’ point guard sliced through the Hawks defense, creating an insurmountable lead.
“Very impressive,’’ Horford said. “Rondo’s the kind of guy that he just controls the game, and it’s very hard to stop him. Him and [Paul] Pierce, I felt like they kind of set the tone and took over early. We need to go back and we need to regroup. I think that’s all there is to it.
“It’s just coming down to one game for us, and we have to take care of home on Tuesday.’’
Atlanta had entered the series playing up-tempo, taking advantage in transition in Game 1. By Game 4, the Hawks found the Celtics had co-opted that strategy, were beating them at their own game.
Smith said he kept seeing the Celtics run through their plays harder than the Hawks, faster, with more purpose, something the Hawks need to improve on in Game 5.
“They are dictating the pace and the rhythm of the game,’’ Drew said. “Tonight it was from the very beginning.’’
By the end of the game, the Hawks had taken out their starters, had given the game over to Erick Dampier, Vladimir Radmanovic, Jannero Pargo, and Willie Green.
There was nothing left for their starters to do.
Until Tuesday. Because they will need more effectiveness from Smith and from Horford and from Johnson in Game 5. Much more, if they hope to extend the series beyond that game.
“We’re going to learn from this and get refocused for Tuesday,’’ Horford said. “You better believe it. We’re coming. We’re bringing it at home.’’