Is it presumptuous to assume that the Celtics and Hawks are at the halfway point of their first-round playoff series?
Nope, don’t think so. Don’t think so at all.
The Celtics hold a 2-0 lead after Tuesday night’s 119-106 victory at TD Garden. The Hawks have been fairly feisty, battling back late in both games to at least add some mild suspense, and they’ll be energized on their home court for Game 3 Friday night.
But the Celtics are superior in every way, and have been able to get what they want when they want it. I see no reason they won’t sweep this first-round matchup, just as they did a season ago against Kevin Durant and the Nets. If the Celtics are focused in Games 3 and 4, this series isn’t coming back to Boston.
A few other thoughts while we await Game 3 …
▪ It’s certainly not the No. 1 plot development on fans’ minds right now, but it’s worth noting that Marcus Smart appears to be back to being at his chaotic best.
That is not a suggestion that he’s playing flawlessly; he took some ill-advised shots in Game 1 that gave me final-minute-of-Game-7-against-the-Heat flashbacks, and teed up a pull-up three about 3½ minutes into Game 2 that made me suspect we were in for more of the same. That was the Bad Marcus who, frankly, shouldn’t exist anymore given how many diverse weapons he has around him.
But he settled down and played a complete floor game after that, finishing with 14 points (on 6-of-11 shooting), 6 assists, 5 rebounds, 3 steals, and assorted hustle plays, including a nifty scoop of a loose ball and behind-the-back dribble that led to a Jayson Tatum layup and a 54-42 lead late in the second quarter. Hey there, Good Marcus, nice to see you again.
Smart, who had a weird defensive season (the reigning Defensive Player of the Year’s isolation numbers were terrible) that was probably related to an ankle injury, seems to have his lateral movement back, which is a welcome development for the Celtics, if not so much for Trae Young.
▪ I know it’s his first NBA playoff series as a head coach, and we know he can be myopic and hyper-competitive about winning, oh, a single game in Detroit in the middle of January, but does Joe Mazzulla have to coach this series as if it’s the Eastern Conference finals?
The Celtics have won each game by 13 points. They had a 32-point first-half lead in Game 1. The Hawks are not a threat.
So it’s close to absurd that, other than 48 seconds from Luke Kornet in Game 2, just eight players have played … and that Grant Williams, who will be needed, has two DNPs … and that Al Horford , who turns 37 in June, played 38 minutes in Game 1 … and that the essential Robert Williams played any minutes whatsoever when the game was out of hand.
Doesn’t he know the rules with the breathtaking, often-injured, and somewhat reckless Williams, who finally came out with 48 seconds left Tuesday up 18? Don’t push your luck. Don’t tempt fate. And don’t play Williams when you don’t have to.
You could feel the air get sucked out of New England when Williams went down after taking a shot to the face late in the third quarter.
For all of his quirks, Mazzulla did a terrific job this season. But he misses the big picture sometimes. And this series is all about the big picture.
▪ I’ve often said of Horford that he would have fit in one important role or another on every great Celtics team in their modern history. It’s a tribute to his malleability and selflessness, and I think it’s the highest praise a longtime Celtics observer can offer.
I cannot be the only one feeling the same way about Derrick White right now. I won’t go into a deep rehash of his extraordinary play in this series so far (he’s averaging 25 points, 6 rebounds, 4.5 assists, and a Mutomboian 2.5 blocks while shooting 62 percent from the field) since it’s been done well already, so let me just say this:
Jayson Tatum, who has hit 50 percent of his threes in this series and is getting to the rim whenever the mood strikes him, deserves to have the ball in his possession more than anyone else. But White is an easy second in that pecking order. He makes quick, correct, and creative decisions, over and over and over again. Reminds me of someone who would be an ideal fit on the ‘86 Celtics.
▪ As I see it, the Celtics have three significant assets they lacked a year ago when they came up two agonizing wins shy of Banner 18: A confident, fully acclimated White, whom we can presume will not be inexcusably stapled to the bench in the fourth quarter again; a healthy Rob Williams, who has hit 10 of 11 shots in this series and is playing with more verve right now than he did at any point in last year’s playoffs; and the best and most overqualified bench player in the NBA, Malcolm Brogdon, whose buzzer-beating 42-footer to put the Celtics up, 28-25, at the end of the first quarter in Game 2 might have been the most casual I’ve-got-this buzzer-beater I’ve ever seen.