This was a rather unfair test for the Celtics after a week of roster upheaval, a matchup against the most precise and synergetic team in the NBA.
And while the Celtics competed for most of Wednesday evening against the Atlanta Hawks, they never appeared within striking distance. The Hawks kept their collective palm on the Celtics’ forehead, peppering their opponents with ball movement, timely shooting, and tenacious defense.
The Hawks won for the 24th time in 26 games, leaving the Celtics with a blueprint for a starless team that wins with teamwork. DeMarre Carroll and Jeff Teague each scored 22 points and Paul Millsap added 18 in a 105-91 victory at TD Garden, a game the Celtics trailed for all of the final three quarters.
And while Celtics coach Brad Stevens credited the Hawks, his players weren’t especially pleased with their effort, especially third-year forward Jared Sullinger, who is becoming more outspoken as his veteran teammates get dealt away.
“You try to win basketball games but the only way to win basketball games is by playing as a team and playing hard,” Sullinger said. “That Hawks team was down a couple of guys and still played hot. That’s the reason why they have the best record in the East.”
And while the Celtics lost to a better team, they also committed 17 turnovers, and 23 personal fouls to Atlanta’s 12.
They were far from perfect on a night they needed to be near perfect, and with Jeff Green and Rajon Rondo gone, this is the roster they will offer for the rest of the season, and the opponents don’t get any easier. The Celtics’ next three games are against the Bulls, Clippers, and Trail Blazers.
“No, I think it’s what we need,” Stevens said when asked whether the Hawks were too good of an opponent for a team in transition. “I think we need to play — and I’m getting my wish — we’re playing the very best of the best. We’ve got to be able to understand all the things we didn’t do well, and it was a five-possession game. And with all of the miscues we make, we have to learn the importance of attention to detail for us on every single possession, we have to learn the importance of taking care of the ball, and all those things. I mean, it’s easy, everybody knows it. You can recite all the things that lead to winning, but doing it is a different thing.”
Avery Bradley scored 17 points for the Celtics, who could never get in any type of offensive rhythm. They either committed a turnover or scrambled late in the shot clock against the Atlanta defense. Tyler Zeller missed all four of his shots and played just 16 minutes. He is 4 for his last 22 from the field and is averaging just 3.3 points in the last three games.
Without a dominant post presence, the Celtics had to rely on dribble penetration and jump shots, and were good at neither. They missed 22 of 33 3-pointers and couldn’t get a lift from the bench. Kelly Olynyk scored 12 points, but the Atlanta defense challenged him to score at the rim, and stripped him of the ball when he tried.
Still, the Celtics were angry with themselves for their approach. They’re a bunch of young players trying to learn how to win in the NBA, and they came away disappointed.
“We just didn’t come out and play hard,” Bradley said. “We have to be a team that plays hard at the beginning of the game, at the beginning of every quarter throughout the whole game, and we just didn’t today and we turned the ball over and it led to points for them, and we can’t do that. We won’t win games if we play that way.”
Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, a former Gregg Popovich assistant with the Spurs, is resting his players in a Popovich-like manner. Three starters sat out Tuesday’s win at Philadelphia, and two more — Al Horford and Kyle Korver — were inactive on Wednesday.
Still, they stuck with the same methodical approach, placing the Celtics in a figurative headlock with their precise ball movement. If it wasn’t Teague attacking off the dribble, it was Carroll scoring on hustle plays, or Millsap taking Olynyk off the dribble.
Atlanta, which began the season 7-6, took control with a 33-point second quarter, leading, 57-45, at the break after scoring 5 points in the final 14.7 seconds of the second quarter. The Celtics, who had held opponents to 40.9 percent shooting over the last four games, allowed the Hawks to shoot 49.3 percent.
Bradley scored 12 of his 17 points in the first half and Olynyk added 9, but the other Celtics were a combined 9 for 29, and they could get no closer than 9 points after intermission.
“I thought our offense was pretty poor all night, and I think they’re obviously a difficult enough offense to guard,” Stevens said. “But when you give them run-out dunks it doesn’t help anything, and we just turned the ball over too much. Put too much pressure on ourselves to be good in the half court defensively, and then to come back. You know, we had cut it to 9 and we were playing with some pretty good energy, but then at the end of the day they made us pay on a few different plays.”