ATLANTA — With the shot clock expiring in the final minutes of the fourth quarter Friday night, Atlanta’s Dejounte Murray rose up over Celtics guard Derrick White to attempt a closely contested 3-pointer from the corner.
When White turned to watch if the shot had gone in, he lost his balance and fell to the ground — just as the ball swished through the net to give the Hawks a 6-point lead with 1:40 remaining. Murray, backpedaling, emphatically pointed at White, his former teammate of five years in San Antonio, before staring him down. The fans at State Farm Arena erupted.
After the Celtics cruised to easy victories in Games 1 and 2 of their first-round playoff series, the Hawks showed up in Game 3 as though they heard all the talk of a potential sweep.
Another cakewalk seemed on tap when Boston jumped out to a 9-point lead at the end of the first quarter. But Atlanta’s hot shooting, effort on the glass, and pride kicked in. The Hawks shot 56 percent from the field and out-rebounded the Celtics by a wide margin (48-29), finally making some noise in this series.
“I thought we played with great intensity,” said Hawks coach Quin Snyder following his team’s 130-122 win. “I thought as a group, we just really threw ourselves into the game.”
The same team that had struggled to generate an offensive rhythm for two games came out firing. The Hawks scored a playoff franchise-record 74 points in the first half, when they connected on 65 percent of their shots from the field and on 50 percent from three.
Atlanta received contributions from almost every member of the rotation. Murray, their most consistent player on offense this series, recorded his third straight game with at least 24 points. Off the bench, Bogdan Bogdanović, Saddiq Bey, and Jalen Johnson combined for 40 — a testament to the notion role players perform better at home.
After Bogdanović hit a 3-pointer in transition late in the second quarter to give the Hawks their first double-digit lead of the game, he put his hand close to the ground, gesturing that Celtics forward Jayson Tatum was “too little” to guard him.
All-Star Trae Young, who looked out of his depth in Boston, also stepped up with his best game of the postseason: 32 points on 12 of 22 shooting, 6 rebounds, and 9 assists.
“I mean, I know I can play like this,” Young said. “I wasn’t worried. I knew I could play the way I needed to. It’s all about reading and making the right adjustments.”
The Hawks stayed engaged down the stretch, never ceding their lead even as Boston pushed within one in the fourth quarter.
Through two games, these two teams seemed to be in different classes. The question was: Can the Hawks steal a game? They proved they can.
Now, the question is: Can they do it again?
Those who say they can’t will point to the unsustainability of Atlanta’s shooting numbers and point out the likelihood of a comedown after such an emotional win. It sure seems as though the Hawks just delayed the inevitable, and are on track for a gentleman’s sweep.
But the Hawks and those who say they can will point to Game 3 as a night that unlocked their previously sputtering offense. Snyder’s message to Young and the rest of the team is similar to what it was after Game 1: “Stay aggressive.”
At the very least, Atlanta’s win sent a message to those who thought the series was already finished.
“The series don’t start until somebody wins on the other person’s floor,” Young said. “We got to go back and take care of home court on Sunday.”