ATLANTA — As the scene shifts to Philips Arena and the Hawks, who have never reached an NBA Finals in 48 seasons in Atlanta, start to face insecurity and doubt, the Celtics almost have to view Tuesday’s Game 5 as a must-win.
They snatched the momentum in this best-of-seven series by winning the last two games in dramatic fashion, including Sunday’s 104-95 overtime win at TD Garden.
There are no more two-day breaks between games. The Celtics and Hawks begin a best-of-three matchup with all the pressure on Atlanta, which is considered the better overall team with Boston missing Avery Bradley with a hamstring injury.
The Hawks are vulnerable, especially after losing Game 4 despite Paul Millsap putting up 45 points, 13 rebounds, and 4 blocked shots. Millsap looked despondent after the game. He went scoreless in overtime, taking just two shots. It was the Hawks’ ninth consecutive loss in an overtime game.
Home-court advantage is meaningful in the playoffs, but so are confidence and security. The Hawks are feeling anxious and unsure about their fate. While this group reached the Eastern Conference finals last season, they struggled with eighth-seeded Brooklyn and fifth-seeded Washington before being swept by the Cavaliers.
Atlanta is a very talented team, but beatable and vulnerable mentally.
“I don’t think there’s going to be any major adjustments,” Hawks swingman Kyle Korver said. “After watching the film, I think there’s things we can do better. There will be some minor adjustments we can focus on. You can’t get too focused on letting one slip away. Our focus is on Game 5 and being in front of our home crowd and playing better.”
The atmosphere at TD Garden for Games 3 and 4 was surreal. The noise was piercing in comparison to Philips Arena, which usually features late-arriving crowds and a throng of Celtics fans.
The Hawks were considered an emerging team eight years ago when they pushed the Big Three Celtics to seven games. This team has gained experience together. It has savvy veterans, a strong blend of youth, and a solid coach. But before last season, the Hawks had been eliminated in the first round three consecutive years, including by the Celtics in the 2011-12 lockout-shortened season.
The Hawks lost all seven previous playoff series against the Celtics since moving to Atlanta from St. Louis before the 1968-69 season.
“We trust our group, we trust our team,” Millsap said, when asked whether the franchise’s playoff shortcomings are a factor. “We trust our coach, our organization, we trust ourselves. It’s not going to get in our head. We feel comfortable where we’re at and where we’re going, and we’re going to continue to press and work hard to get where we want to be.”
While each team is passionate about winning this series, they are a little uncertain about how to accomplish that. The Hawks can’t just rely on home cooking; their venue isn’t all that imposing.
The Celtics spent last weekend feeding off Atlanta’s insecurities. They punched the Hawks in the mouth in Game 3 and then held on with Thomas’s 42-point performance. The Hawks fought back from a 20-point deficit and still lost.
On Sunday, Atlanta owned a 62-46 third-quarter lead before a 24-8 Celtics run and the shooting of Marcus Smart changed the momentum for good. The vision of Jeff Teague dribbling down nearly all of the final 15 seconds of regulation before making a half-hearted attempt at a shot burns in the minds of Atlanta’s faithful.
Teague drained two clutch 3-pointers to give the Hawks a 92-90 lead, but was indecisive when it counted. And that has to create some uncertainty about who will close for the Hawks in the waning moments.
“Historically, we have a group that we play with and we kind of stick to and hopefully over the course of a series, all of those habits and all of those principles can kind get us through,” coach Mike Budenholzer said. “Can we do some things better? Can we make some slight adjustments in some situations? Yeah, but that’s not what’s going to win or lose the game.”
The rest of this series will be a mental battle. Each team has its weaknesses, and the high level of familiarity makes this even more interesting. But the pressure is squarely on the Hawks, and the Celtics have to capitalize on that instability.