ATLANTA — Before the Celtics faced the Hawks in Game 3 of this opening-round playoff series Friday night, coach Joe Mazzulla said he was expecting “a big punch” from Atlanta, which entered the night in an 0-2 deficit the basketball world viewed as even deeper.
About four hours later, the Celtics walked off the court solemnly and stoically following a 130-122 loss, as Hawks fans pumped their fists.
Sitting in a small, hot room in the bowels of the arena, Mazzulla was asked about his prescient view, and how his team needs to respond to that punch before this once-lopsided series turns into something more tense.
“Throw one back,” he said flatly.
The Celtics did not appear particularly alarmed after the loss. It resonated like a warning flare. Boston mostly demolished Atlanta over the first two games at TD Garden without even playing perfectly.
Even though observers penciled in a sweep and began to look ahead to a potential juicy second-round matchup against the 76ers, the Celtics insisted that they did not.
“We knew it wasn’t going to be easy,” guard Marcus Smart said. “That’s why we let the outside noise continue to talk for us.”
This night provided a gentle reminder that for now is just an inconvenience. The Celtics just need to ensure it does not swell into something bigger.
In some ways, Friday unfolded like an outlier. A Hawks bench that was little factor in the first two games went 13 for 14 from the field during a powerful 74-point first half. Atlanta’s offensive rebounding — a primary concern entering the series — was fine while hardly dominant. But this time the Hawks converted the 11 boards into 23 second-chance points.
This season the Celtics’ success generally followed the path of their 3-point shooting. They had been 26-0, including the playoffs, when shooting at least 43.2 percent from long range. They were at 43.8 percent Friday (21 of 48), but lost anyway.
“It just seemed like the ball bounced a little bit out of our direction and into theirs,” Celtics forward Jaylen Brown said. “But we’ve got to take some of the luck out.”
Brown was slowed by both foul trouble and the Hawks, finishing with just 15 points in 33 minutes. But his fellow All-Star, Jayson Tatum, stepped forward and took the blame for this setback.
After a strong first quarter in which he connected on three 3-pointers and seemed to find a good rhythm, Tatum made just five more shots over the rest of the game. He made 9 of 22 shots overall and had 29 points and four turnovers.
With the Celtics trailing, 124-121, Brown came up with a steal and Tatum had a clean look from the right arc with one minute left that would have tied it, but the shot caromed off the back of the rim. He said his decision-making in other situations was most hurtful, pointing specifically to turnovers that resulted from a lack of patience.
“I know I get a lot of credit when we win, and I have to take the blame when we lose, rightfully so,” Tatum said. “Got to play better. Got to make some better decisions in some of those moments. I will. I didn’t think we were going to win every game in the playoffs. "
Grant Williams’s play was a silver lining for the Celtics. The forward, who has been in and out of the rotation in recent months, did not appear in the first two games of the series. But he played 17 minutes, 42 seconds Friday, drilled all four of his 3-pointers and made several key hustle plays.
Mazzulla has insisted whenever Williams sits that Boston will need him if it is going to win a championship, and this night should at least give his confidence and rhythm a boost.
“I didn’t want my situation to affect what this team was doing,” Williams said. “I wanted to make sure everyone was prideful, happy, and able to play freely. So when I subbed in, I tried not to mess with their flow and did what I was told to do.”
Trae Young had 32 points to lead the Hawks, who shot 56 percent from the field, the third-highest mark for a Celtics opponent during the regular season and playoffs combined.
Highlight reels will show two crushing 3-pointers by Young and Dejounte Murray that helped push back Boston’s comeback attempt in the final minutes. But it only reached that point because of the work Atlanta’s second unit did earlier.
Bogdan Bogdanovic and Saddiq Bey combined to go 10 for 10 from the field in the first half, and the Hawks were 17 for 23 in the second quarter, helping flip a 9-point first-quarter deficit into a 74-67 lead.
“I thought that gave them life,” Mazzulla said, “and I thought they played a complete game.”
The Celtics used an 8-0 run to tie the score at 79 early in the third quarter, but the Hawks called timeout and answered with their own 8-0 burst. Atlanta continued to rebuff Celtics runs throughout the second half, despite 11 turnovers that made it look like it was getting ready to crumble.
Young exploited switches against Celtics big man Al Horford midway through the fourth, when he scored three baskets and had an assist during a 90-second stretch. Then his tough step-back against Horford with 2:22 left made it 121-116 before Murray added one 42 seconds later.
“They hit some big shots tonight, especially down the stretch,” Tatum said. “This one kind of hurt a little bit.”
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Instant analysis: What went wrong for Celtics
Box score: Hawks 130, Celtics 122