ATLANTA — Joe Mazzulla could give his team all of the beware signs, discretionary signals and prudent warnings he could muster and it likely wouldn’t have been impactful Friday at State Farm Arena.
The Celtics played well enough in some aspects to win Game 3. But the Hawks had an answer for every run; they drained jumpers with hands in their faces, scooped up loose balls and converted seemingly every opportunity when they grabbed an offensive rebound.
The Hawks were the more physical team because they are the more physical team period, and combine that with elite shot-making and suddenly we have a series after the Celtics’ 130-122 loss.
Atlanta’s shot-making wasn’t necessarily a shock. The Hawks finished third in the NBA in scoring. They are used to these shootouts. It’s pretty much the only way they can compete in this series. But the Celtics are continuing to get pounded on the boards, relenting too many second-chance points.
The Hawks are outhustling the Celtics, and Mazzulla implored his club to increase their aggressiveness in pursuing rebounds, but that has waned since Game 1. In the pivotal fourth quarter Friday, when the Celtics were trying to make one final push to steal a win, the Hawks grabbed every key rebound.
Saddiq Bey’s six rebounds in the final period equaled the Celtics as a team. It’s a matter of desire, execution and at times, luck. The Celtics didn’t get one 50-50 ball in the final period. In one key sequence with Atlanta up 2 in the final three minutes, Trae Young missed a layup, Clint Capela missed a putback, and the ball went off a Celtic for another possession.
Dejounte Murray then missed a 13-footer, and again the ball went off a Celtic. After a Derrick White foul, Young took Horford one-on-one after a pick and roll and drained a contested corner 3-pointer for a 121-116 Atlanta lead.
The Celtics gave Atlanta four opportunities to score and they allowed the most crucial shot. The Hawks were unquestionably stellar on offense, shooting 56.1 percent and 44.1 from the 3-point line but the Celtics’ lack of rebounding, lack of making that extra push for the loose ball, cost them this game.
“Just effort, a team effort, everybody has to rebound,” center Robert Williams said. “All those guys are tough crashers. I’m sure their coach put the emphasis on crashing the boards and they’re thriving from that standpoint and we’ve got to make their physicality from the jump.”
Of course, allowing a ghastly 74 first-half points was as egregious as the rebounding for the Celtics. The notion that role players play better at home held true. The Hawks besides Murray and Young were 22-for-29 shooting in the first half, and the Celtics committed the mistake of allowing Atlanta to gain comfort early.
“The slip-ups came from their role guys,” Mazzulla said. “The first two games they got some open shots that they missed and I thought those guys knocked them down [Friday]. And then they capitalized on those second-chance opportunities.”
The chances to win were there. The Celtics led, 37-28, late in the first quarter and needed a couple of more possessions to take full control. Instead, they allowed the Hawks to score the final two buckets of the quarter to spark a 42-19 run that changed the game. Atlanta made 17 of 23 shots in the second period, including a 31-footer from Bogdan Bogdanovic that was a prime example that the Hawks were comfortable back in the Deep South.
It’s hard to imagine the Hawks playing any better but it also creates doubt for a Celtics team that is heavily favored to win this series. They can’t rely on an Atlanta dropoff. They have to respond with a more complete defensive game, more aggression and desire on the boards, and better decision-making down the stretch.
Jayson Tatum looked primed for one of his brilliant offensive performances but missed all five of his second-half 3-point attempts, including one that would have tied the game with 58.1 seconds left. Tatum knew better execution and sounder decisions could have lifted his team and made its playoff road easier.
“I have to play better,” the four-time All-Star said. “I think I had some untimely turnovers, especially some reads at the rim, maybe trying to get fouled. This one tonight is on me.”
Noble for Tatum to accept responsibility. But there were many responsible. Tatum led the Celtics with 10 rebounds. No other Celtic collected more than five. Jaylen Brown and Malcolm Brogdon collected just two in nearly 62 combined minutes.
It’s not that the Celtics didn’t come to play. They just didn’t come to rebound, and that cost them a chance at a sweep.
“They’ve got a lot of athleticism, a lot of guys that are going hard, that get their hands on balls,” Brown said. “It seemed like the ball bounced a little bit out of our direction and into theirs but we have to take some of the luck out and be better on the offensive glass. It’s a dogfight down there.”
And the Celtics will have to get dirtier if they want to avoid leaving Atlanta tied in this series. They can either assume the Hawks won’t play as well and rest on their talent to prevail or play like the hungrier team, upgrade their defensive rebounds, and extinguish Atlanta’s confidence in this series. It’s their choice.
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Box score: Hawks 130, Celtics 122