These NBA playoffs have been filled with injuries and upsets, but TD Garden has provided a pocket of normalcy. The Celtics entered their first-round series against the Hawks as massive favorites, and for two games, they have mostly looked the part.
They are just too talented, too hungry, and too confident, and their 119-106 win Tuesday gave them a commanding 2-0 lead in this best-of-seven.
“We did what we were supposed to do,” guard Derrick White said.
In White’s case, he probably did even more than that. On a team that includes likely All-NBA selections Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, White has probably been Boston’s most important player over these first two games.
He has been relentless at both ends of the court. On offense, he has attacked for crafty baskets in the paint and confidently fired away from the 3-point line. On defense, he has bothered Hawks star Trae Young and continued to be perhaps this league’s most unlikely rim protector.
White had 26 points, 7 rebounds, and 3 blocks Tuesday, and he is 18 for 29 from the field in the series. It’s hard to fathom that this is the same player who often appeared reluctant and uneasy as a scorer last postseason, when opponents routinely left him wide open and watched him overthink.
When White went to the free throw line in the fourth quarter Tuesday he was serenaded with loud “MVP” chants. The calls were mixed with a splash of humor, but they also were valid for at least this small slice of the season.
“I was happy to hear that for him,” said Tatum, the usual recipient of this adulation. “We talked about it after the game. He was like, ‘That’s what it feels like?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I guess.’ ”
Tatum was not bad, either. He had 29 points, 10 rebounds, and 6 assists, his typical night’s work that is probably taken for granted sometimes. The Celtics made 55.8 percent of their shots and 45.5 percent of their 3-pointers. With a defense as fierce as theirs, it’s unlikely that any opponent will beat them while giving up those shooting splits.
Coach Joe Mazzulla was pleased with the win and where it positions his team, but he also expressed some uneasiness. The Hawks gobbled up 19 offensive rebounds, took 15 more shots overall and 15 more 3-pointers, a reversal of the regular-season shot profiles of these teams.
The Hawks took 48 3-pointers Tuesday, seven more than they attempted in any regular-season game. Fortunately for the Celtics, the Hawks made just 16.
“As good as it feels, we haven’t gotten better in two games because we’re not able to control the shot margin the way we need to,” Mazzulla said. “They’re doing a great job of taking away our threes, while they’re kind of unleashing their guys and taking more.”
These imperfections feel more like inconveniences than anything else, however. And the Celtics’ 12 blocked shots and 10 steals certainly helped them offset deficiencies elsewhere.
They are firmly in control of this series, and their path is looking less daunting by the day. The Bucks, who entered the playoffs as NBA title favorites, are already down, 1-0, against the Heat, and star forward Giannis Antetokounmpo is doubtful for Wednesday’s Game 2 because of a lower-back contusion. Even if he plays, he is likely to be limited.
Plenty of work remains for the Celtics, of course, but they could not have asked for a more encouraging week.
“It’s a balanced feeling of you understand that you’re up, 2-0, and at the same time, we have to play better and we know we can play better,” Mazzulla said. “So, I like the duality of that feeling.”
The Hawks started 1 for 16 from the 3-point line in Game 1 but had a nice reset in Game 2 by hitting 3 of 4 at the open. That helped them dash to an 11-point lead and quieted a lively Garden crowd. But this did not last.
The Celtics went on a 12-0 run with Tatum on the bench, and Tatum continued the surge when he returned, scoring 14 points in the second quarter to boost Boston to a 61-49 halftime lead.
Tatum hit a pair of 3-pointers early in the third quarter. Midway through the period, Al Horford and Robert Williams blanketed John Collins inside, Horford swatted his shot and then raced upcourt and drilled a 3-pointer from the right corner that gave the Celtics their largest lead, 79-59.
The Hawks clawed back behind the hot shooting of Dejounte Murray, who scored 18 of his 29 points in the second half. Atlanta twice pulled within 9 points, but much like in Game 1, its run stalled before it could become a true threat.