The Celtics had an opportunity to effectively end their first round series last night. Given that no team in NBA history has ever come back from being down 3-0, you could say it was a rather big opportunity.
Instead, we witnessed the first 1st round loss by the Celtics with Tatum and Brown playing since the 2017-18 season. This will be the first year the Celtics do not end the first round in a sweep when their two best players are active, and that's certainly a bummer. I loved that streak and am sad to see it end. I suppose maybe that's partly why some were on edge after last night, because it's been a LONG time since Tatum and Brown have lost a 1st round game (won the previous 14) together.
Now there are a few ways to look at this game, and I think all are valid.
1. They blew a chance to end the series
2. Their defense and lack of rebounding lost them the game
3. The Hawks had the best shooting performance in their franchise history
4. Everything is still fine
Would we all have preferred a sweep? Yeah? I don't think that's really a hot take. Do the Celts still have a chance to end this series in 5 games? Yeah? So everyone take a deep breath. This is sort of what I talked about in the preview, the Hawks are still a professional basketball team. Coming at home with their season on the line, it's not out of the realm of possibility that they would play well. I would argue that given how crazy they went shooting the ball, the fact that the Celts were always competitive and still had their opportunities late is encouraging.
Call it a reminder or a wake up call or whatever, last night showed that the Hawks are not going to roll over, and that's fine. This was the first time all season they've beaten the Celtics. You're going to have to go through ups and downs in a playoff run, so here we go. Here's the first test of adversity. There's nothing wrong with that, as long as you respond like you should.
But what I don't think anyone should do is simply ignore some of the problem areas we saw last night and just chalk it up to a prayer Hawks performance. There were elements of last night that might not happen again, but there were other issues that have been a problem this entire series, and last night they finally were able to bite the Celts in the ass. It's a mix if that makes any sense.
With that said, let's dive in.
- The one thing that has remained constant through 3 games is the Celts getting some rather strong guard play. Unfortunately Derrick White fell victim to some early foul trouble which sort of sucked his aggressiveness out defensively, but even he went 4-7 (3-4) from the floor.
When it comes to the other two guys though, you could make the case that Marcus Smart was the 2nd best Celtic to touch the floor in this game
With Jaylen also falling victim to early foul trouble, someone had to step up and be that 2nd scoring option, and it needed to be done in an efficient manner.
For the most part, Smart stepped up. It wasn't just his 24 points, it was the fact that they came on 47/41% shooting. Finishing with 8 assists and only 1 TO in his 32 minutes is exactly how we all want him to play. In the 4th quarter when the game was close, Smart finished 4-8 and led the Celts with 9 points. Defensively he more than held his own, allowing just 10 points in all of his matchups.
To put it simply, if this is the version of Smart we're going to be getting this playoff run (16.5/5.0/7.0 on 46/40% with 1.3 TOs), the Celts are going to be just fine.
The beauty of this roster is it's not just one of these guards, it's the fact that there are 3 of them. Those who didn't find themselves in foul trouble were great, and that includes Malcolm Brogdon
I think most of us will take 17/5 with 2 TOs on 7-15 (3-6) shooting off the bench in 28 minutes. The only negative I would really say about Brogdon's night is the majority of the damage came in the first half. He went just 2-7 (0-2) in his 11 second half minutes, but in terms of finding ways to provide that secondary scoring while White/Brown had to sit with fouls was partly what kept the Celts within striking distance.
The brutal miss of course was this guy in the 4th quarter
but overall Brogdon gave more than enough.
- Jayson Tatum had a weird game in the sense that 29/10/5 is nothing to sneeze at on a surface level. He also had a mostly disastrous 2nd half, so I'm going to put his first half in this section because that shit was nails
What I also loved most about his night though is what came after
That's a leader. That's accountability. Even if it may not entirely be true, this is what you want to hear from your best player in a game you probably should have found a way to win. There was no finger-pointing, there was no avoiding anything. That's the sign of a healthy mindset/locker room.
Usually, when Tatum has a situation like this where he takes the L, the bounce back performance is rather legendary and I fully expect to see it in Game 4.
- Everything we like to see from this team offensively showed up last night. Over 120 points, over 20 3PM. over 30 AST, under 13 TOs. That's exactly how the Celts play on that end of the floor when they win, which is part of what makes last night so goddamn annoying.
It was only the 1st time all season the Celtics lost a game in which they shot at least 40% from deep
It was only the 4th time all season the Celtics lost a game in which they scored at least 120 points
It was only the 3rd time all season the Celtics lost a game in which they made at least 20 3PM
It was only the 3rd time all season the Celtics lost a game in which they finished with at least 30 AST
It was only the 8th time all season the Celtics lost a game in which they finished with under 13 TOs
So yeah, that is something I find very, very annoying.
What this does, it point to the larger issue, which we'll get to. But offensively? The Celts did pretty much everything you could ask for. They made their shots, they moved the ball, and they took care of the ball. If they continue to play like this, history says they'll be fine.
- I know Grant gets a lot of shit, mostly because it's well deserved, but to go from having no idea he was going to play to putting up shit like this
was awesome to see. I don't want to sound hyperbolic, but I don't think Grant has had a game with so many positive plays and zero negative plays in maybe 3-4 months. He was a perfect 4-4 (4-4) in his 17 minutes, he didn't turn the ball over, and he made both of his FTs.
I think it was fair to wonder how Grant would be holding up mentally after all these DNP-CDs, and it looked like he took a page out of Payton Pritchard's playbook and stayed ready and locked in. While I don't think we can expect perfect shooting every time out, I do think a performance like this had to be massive for Grant's confidence, especially shooting the ball. The Celts are going to need Grant during this playoff run, so it's a relief to know he's not checked out mentally just because he didn't play in the first two games, and it wouldn't shock me if he doesn't play in Game 4 if there's no foul trouble.
- For our first time seeing Joe navigate a close playoff game on the road, I thought he did well. His timeout usage was pretty damn near perfect in the 4th quarter, I thought he managed the rotations of Smart/Brogdon well while keeping Derrick on the floor at all times once he checked in at around the 10 minute mark. His decision go to with Al over Rob payed off considering going 5 out is what got the Celts life with Al's shooting.
It sucks they lost of course, but Joe did not seem overwhelmed by the moment. We've literally never seen him be in this spot before, and through 3 games it's hard to have too many issues with Joe's playoff coaching debut.
- Alright let's move on.
- So if the Celts were so good offensively, what the fuck happened? It's rather simple. In basketball, you have to play offense AND defense. When you do one and not the other, you tend to lose.
When you see the Celts gave up 130 points, your initial reaction is they were dogshit on defense, and that's true, but it's only partly true. Here's what I mean.
We've seen the Celts have some pretty lifeless defensive performances where they get absolutely worked on that end. That's not really what last night was. They didn't play lifeless defense. This wasn't a game where they didn't play with energy or effort and were sleepwalking through a game and gave the Hawks an endless supply of wide open looks.
On some level, you have to tip your cap to the Hawks ability to make a ton of contested jumpers
A total of 37 of their 91 FGA were either on tight or very tight coverage. That's 40% of their shots, which is pretty good. If you look at some of these buckets by Dejounte Murray, there were good contests on over half
So how did they give up so many points if they were contesting shots like this? Well, partly because the Hawks made those contested FGA, but also because of what their second unit did.
The Hawks bench finished with 44 points on 16-22 (8-10) shooting. They say role players play better at home, and this was about as good an example of that as you can possibly have. Is this sustainable? Probably not, and it's why you can't overreact all that much.
Bogdanovic was 3-3 on tight coverage, including shit like this
Like….you live with that. Tip your cap and move on.
The contested FGA stuff is an area you mostly throw away. But there were also signs of concerns that I think are more real, and need to be addressed.
In the first two games, the Celts were much better at guarding P&R and isolation. In Game 3? It was a disaster. The Hawks run P&R more than any team in the NBA, and the Celts ranked int he 37th percentile during the year at guarding the P&R ball handler. Given that Trae had 32 points and a shot chart like this
I would say the Celts struggled in both areas big time in this game. In P&R, Trae had Al in hell. Just way too quick
Drop coverage was a little too deep given what Young can do with his floater, and switching didn't exactly perform any better. This was the first time in this series where Derrick was getting cooked on ball by both Young and Murray (20 points on 8-13 shooting) and as we know, if you can't stop the point of attack you're cooked.
Now that the Hawks saw some success with their P&R offense, you bet your ass they're going to use a heavy dose of it in Game 4, so this is obviously something the Celts have to figure out. It gave me some shades of Steph in the Finals if we're being honest.
- 11-16 from the FT line in a game you lost by 8. Cool cool cool.
- Between the Hawks making both of those highly contested corner 3PA in the final 2 minutes and both Brogdon and Tatum missing wide open 3PA in the final 2 minutes, that's basically your game right there. Make or miss league sometimes I guess.
- After dominating the Hawks in the paint in Game 2, it was the Celts that were getting dominated in the paint in Game 3 to the tune of 54-40. The concern here is that Rob played 19 minutes and wasn't all that impactful, and if he and Al are going to be your only bigs that play, they need to hold down the paint when they're out there.
Part of that is poor perimeter defense, part of that is rebounding, but for a Celts team that hold opponents on average to 48 points in the paint (9th in NBA), giving up 54 and losing by 8 is also very annoying.
- As good as the team was from deep in the first half, that did not carry over. The Celts finished just 6-23 (26%) on 3PA over the final 24 minutes, with the Jays going 0-7 and Smart 1-6. Add in Brogdon's 0-2, and a 1-15 half from those guys usually spells trouble.
Once we got to the 4th, the Celts shot 3-14 from deep in those 12 minutes. Not great!
- It never really felt like Jaylen was able to snap out of his foul trouble issues. His efficiency was fine, but he wasn't nearly aggressive enough for my liking. Finishing with only 1 rebound was also rather concerning, especially given how important that is for this team to be successful. I don't think his hand is really an issue given his efficiency has been fine, but we did not get the same aggressive Jaylen who imposes his will against teams. He was mostly passive/settled in the second half, and that is not what you need from your franchise guy in that spot in a road playoff game.
- Now the #1 reason the Celts lost this game.
We talked about it heading into the series. We talked about it after the Hawks had 14 OREB in Game 1. We talked about it after the Hawks had 19 OREB in Game 2. In Game 3, they may have only finished with 11 OREB, but those led to 23 2nd chance points.
In the 4th quarter alone, the Hawks secured 5 OREB which led to 8 points, all of them being huge backbreaking plays. Shit like this simply cannot happen in a playoff game. Grab the fucking ball. If you don't, this is what happens
That huge Trae Young 3PM with about 2:22 left? It came after the Celts were unable to secure a rebound. The Hawks had 6 OREB and 15 2nd chance points heading into the final quarter, so for them to get 5 OREB/8 2nd chance points is losing basketball. Rebounding is about effort, and in every game this series the Hawks have dominated on the offensive glass. If you give a team 2 or 3 tries every possession, they are going to make shots and build confidence. It's that simple.
- This game really came down to 2 different stretches. There was the stretch in the 2nd quarter when the Hawks went on a 9 for 9 run shooting the ball, and then in the 4th quarter, once the Celts came back, they allowed ATL to immediately go on a 5 for 5 run.
As we know, it doesn't matter what you do offensively if you can't get stops. In the playoffs, it's about stops. If you don't defend, you die. For a team that all season hasn't really shot the ball well, you cannot give up these sustained runs where they do not miss a shot.
It sucks to see the Celts waste such a solid offensive performance, and I imagine much like the Hawks, their shooting will probably come down to earth a little bit in Game 4. They had an opportunity to bury this team, and instead, the Hawks now have some life. Sunday provides another opportunity to squash that life and take a 3-1 lead back to their own building.
Love and Trust.