The Hawks learned pretty quickly Friday night that Game 3 of their first-round playoff series with the Celtics would be different from the first two.
The opening sequence started out innocent — and familiar — enough, with Jonas Jerebko missing a 3-point try, Amir Johnson kicking out the rebound to Isaiah Thomas, and Thomas’s ensuing shot bouncing off the rim.
But as Thomas’s attempt made its way to the basket, the 6-foot-10-inch Jerebko glided with it. He started behind Thomas and ended in the right place at the right time: at the hoop with the ball floating there, asking to be dunked.
Jerebko, making his first start of the season, didn’t so much dunk the ball as he did bat it through the basket. The TD Garden crowd exploded. The Celtics were on their way to a big first quarter and — after a second-half scare — a 111-103 win.
“That’s what got them going,” the Hawks’ Paul Millsap said. “The dunk got them going, got the crowd into it early. It just made it tough on us.”
Added teammate Al Horford: “You don’t want to start the game like that. You just don’t. It’s one of those plays that you try to move on and move onto the next play. That’s what we did.”
Well, sort of.
Jerebko’s dunk was the start of an electrifying sequence that included a few Thomas makes, a harbinger of things to come.
The Hawks insisted they were ready to play Friday. Maybe, they suggested, the Celtics were just more ready — or more desperate — returning home down, 2-0, in the series.
The general sentiment of the Atlanta locker room: You can’t win them all. They had to forget it and be better for Game 4 Sunday.
“Their sense of urgency was more than ours,” Horford said. “That was the big difference.”
The Celtics’ fast start soon gave way to quite a bit of chippy play. At one point, Thomas seemed to slap Atlanta point guard Dennis Schroder (20 points) in the face/neck area. Cameras caught it, but the officials didn’t. Schroder expressed his frustration to the referees, who apologized at halftime for missing it, according to Schroder.
Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said he expects the league to take a look at it.
“The league does a good job on all things like this, and they have high standards and all teams are aware of their emphasis during the playoffs,” Budenholzer said. “As far as an explanation, there wasn’t an explanation. There was a double technical and there was no review of the incident in the backcourt at the free throw line.”
Schroder was a little more straightforward.
“It was aggressive,” he said. “I was mad.”
Thomas’s offensive output might’ve made Schroder a little mad, too — a game-high 42 points on 12-for-24 shooting and 13 of 15 free throws. That’s a significant difference from Thomas’s 33.3 percent shooting (12 for 36) from the field in the first two games.
Budenholzer was less than pleased that Thomas was able to get to the line as often as he did.
“He earned them,” Budenholzer said. “That [many free throws is] a problem right there. We’ve got to do a better job of keeping him off the free throw line, maybe be more disciplined on pump fakes.”
Budenholzer wasn’t too upset overall, though.
“Our players’ response I think could be better, but at the same time we were focused, we were ready,” Budenholzer said. “They threw a heck of a blow coming out in the first quarter. Some nights, you’re just on the wrong side of that.
“Could we be better? Yes. But I’m not overly critical of how we responded or how we came out or how we met expectations on the road. We need to be better.”