After being ambushed in Game 1 of their playoff series, the Celtics were determined to strike back. They knew their best hope in Game 2 against the Hawks would be to pounce quickly.
Isaiah Thomas squatted and stretched his legs, Jared Sullinger blew on his hands, and Jae Crowder adjusted the bands in his hair. They were ready, and then the ball was tipped, and somehow, they weren’t.
The Hawks blitzed the Celtics from all angles as they stormed to a 24-3 lead Tuesday. The Celtics actually outscored them from that point on, falling, 89-72, but this was a rare night that had essentially been decided in the opening minutes.
It was a dizzying stretch in which Celtics coach Brad Stevens called two timeouts, guard Marcus Smart was hit in the ribs, rookie R.J. Hunter found out what happens when you turn your back to Kyle Korver, and one shot after another thudded off of the rim.
The Celtics would rather forget the opening 6 minutes, 32 seconds of that game. But they also know their only hope in this series is ensuring that nothing like that happens again.
“That’s making everything more complicated,” Crowder said of the sleepy starts. “It’s making our offense more complicated, it’s making our transition defense more complicated, and we’ve got to just start better.”
It is difficult to pinpoint one moment that caused the Celtics to collapse so quickly, but this is a good place to start. With 10 minutes left in the first quarter and Boston trailing, 8-2, Hawks forward Kent Bazemore drove through the lane and inadvertently kneed Smart in the ribs.
Hunter, who had played just 315 minutes during the regular season, replaced Smart. On the ensuing inbounds pass, he briefly had his back to Korver, who came sprinting around Al Horford’s screen of Thomas, toward the right corner.
Stevens noticed this danger before Hunter did, as he desperately clapped his hands and yelled for Hunter. By then, though, it was too late. Korver caught the pass and swished the three, and Stevens slapped his hands together in frustration.
It is never good to give up a 3-pointer, but the greater danger in this case was that it was a harbinger. The Celtics had held Korver to 1-for-10 shooting in Game 1, and suddenly he was already on the verge of finding a rhythm in Game 2.
After the game, Stevens was asked if his team had almost forgotten about Korver after his quiet start to the series, and he stopped the questioner.
“No, not at all,” Stevens said. “Korver’s one of the main things we talk about every time we walk in this building, every time we walk into the hotel, every time we land in Atlanta. We know that we have to be in his airspace, or else we’re toast.”
Smart replaced Hunter after a timeout, but it appeared his rib injury slowed him. He stepped out of bounds on offense, and on defense the Hawks — intentionally or not — attacked him several times in a row.
Thomas, who made just 1 of 10 3-pointers during the regular season when there was a defender within 2 feet, missed one with Jeff Teague in his face. Teague then juked Smart — who did not appear to be moving as well as he was before injuring his ribs — and hit a jumper.
Apparently sensing his team’s spiral, Stevens went to a smaller lineup at the 8:45 mark — considerably earlier than usual — inserting Evan Turner for Amir Johnson. One of the great values of smaller lineups is that they space the floor and offer more opportunities for shooting. But in this case, with Avery Bradley and Kelly Olynyk sidelined because of injuries, the Celtics had Smart, a 25.3 percent 3-point shooter, and Turner, who made 24.1 percent of his tries this season.
When Thomas found himself matched up with the 6-foot-8-inch, 246-pound Paul Millsap, he looked to attack. In most cases this would be a golden opportunity. But Millsap is a rare power forward capable of staying with him, at least temporarily. Thomas drove, and when Millsap received help from Horford, he fired a pass to Smart, whose open 3-pointer was off, just as the Hawks had been expecting.
Korver, meanwhile, was just getting going. With 7:47 left, Smart tried to go under a series of screens that were lined up for Korver. Although he avoided them, he collided with Sullinger, leaving Korver open for a 3-pointer that made it 18-3.
“They came out, they played great, they got out running,” Turner said. “It seemed like they came more prepared than we did.”
After Millsap blocked a shot by Smart, Korver and Bazemore leaked out. Turner was there to guard Bazemore, but Sullinger leaned that way, too, a fatal mistake against such a dangerous shooter. Korver hit another 3-pointer in front of Stevens, who reached out to stop Korver from falling afterward.
As the Celtics crumbled, there was confusion. With his team on offense, Sullinger put his palms in the air and looked to the bench three times over one 24-second possession that ended with Turner forcing an errant shot from the right baseline.
With the Celtics trailing, 21-3, Stevens burned a second timeout. And on the ensuing and seemingly harmless inbounds pass from Thomas to Smart, Teague streaked in and nearly stole it. Stevens was furious.
Finally, with 5:28 left, Thomas ran into a Mike Muscala screen and Korver hit another open three, making it 24-3. The Hawks’ reserves twirled towels on the bench, and the Celtics were unable to recover. Even though Atlanta did not score again during that quarter, it did not matter.