WALTHAM — Soon after the Celtics grabbed a crucial Game 3 victory over the Hawks on Friday, the good feelings shifted to concern. A video of point guard Isaiah Thomas hitting Hawks guard Dennis Schroder in the face as Schroder ran upcourt had begun to spread rapidly on the Internet. Former league executive Stu Jackson even predicted that Thomas would be suspended for Game 4, which would have been a crippling blow to Boston’s already shorthanded team.
Thomas was initially confident that he would avoid a suspension, but as he heard the Hawks begin to shape the narrative, he worried that the NBA might make an example out of him.
On Saturday, though, the Celtics exhaled when Thomas was retroactively assessed a flagrant-1 foul but not suspended.
The play occurred with 1 minute, 43 seconds left in the opening quarter, as Schroder jogged upcourt after making a layup and Thomas swiped at him and made contact with his face.
It did not appear especially malicious, but league rules make it clear that such a play could result in a suspension. The precedent was somewhat cloudy, too.
In 2009, Magic guard Rafer Alston was suspended for one game essentially for knocking the headband off Celtics guard Eddie House in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Last November, though, Hawks guard Jeff Teague received a flagrant-2 foul but no suspension for hitting Minnesota’s Nemanja Bjelica in an altercation that seemed similar to Thomas’s.
On Saturday, Thomas continued to insist that his incident was unintentional.
“The replay, in a slower version it’s going to look like I looked at [Schroder] and tried to hit him,” he said. “If I try to hit somebody, I would’ve hit him. I know cameras are watching. I didn’t do it on purpose.”
That was just one of several plays Friday that was indicative of what is becoming a tough, physical series. In all, there were four flagrant fouls and two technical fouls called, as the officials spent a good portion of the evening shuffling to television monitors for reviews.
The Celtics and Hawks are two of the NBA’s scrappier teams, and when those identities are mixed with the intensity of the playoffs, there will be some testiness.
“At the end of the day, there’s such a fine line between hard, real good competition and crossing that line,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said, “and you’ve just got to do your best to compete at that physical level necessary to have success.”
With 4:30 left in the first quarter Friday, Jae Crowder came up with a steal, went in for a layup, and was fouled hard by Teague. The play was reviewed and ruled a common foul rather than a flagrant. Crowder believes that decision created a baseline for players to know what level of contact would be allowed.
“I told the ref, ‘You set the tone, I hope you realize that,’ ” Crowder said. “And that’s when it got chippy.”
Three minutes later, Thomas and Schroder had two altercations. First there was Thomas’s swipe that was missed by the referees, and then at the other end Schroder committed a hard foul on Thomas and both players received technical fouls for a brief spat.
In the third quarter, two flagrant fouls were called over a 20-second span, the first on Celtics forward Jared Sullinger and the second on Hawks forward Paul Millsap.
“I think we could keep our cool a little bit better,” Millsap said. “I think we did great, but it takes a little extra focus to get over that hump, especially when you’re on the road. Things will simmer down a lot, but things will simmer back up [Sunday]. It’s the playoffs, man.”
On Saturday, the Celtics met as a team and discussed the importance of keeping their edge without taking it too far. They are already without injured players Avery Bradley and Kelly Olynyk and they face a 2-1 series deficit, so there is no wiggle room for ejections or suspensions or even extra free throws.
“We can’t have anybody making any bonehead plays that cost our team,” Crowder said. “We need everybody, and we can’t have any flagrant-2’s or anything like that. We still have to hold our own, play within the game and play the right way.”