They had a nearly healthy roster, a home crowd feeling a little bit of hope, all the momentum from that big game 1 victory, and a couple of guys, especially Josh Smith and Jeff Teague, playing dynamite basketball. On the other hand, Boston’s missing the greatest three point shooter in history to a bum ankle, and their enigmatic superstar point guard to a one game suspension.
Their stars who were able to suit up are a combined 100 years old, their supporting cast is largely unproven and unheralded, they didn’t have that wild crowd in Boston to feed off of, and they had no momentum at all going in.
And yet, despite all the weight of my basketball reasoning, I just couldn’t bring myself to believe that the Hawks would be able to pull ahead 2-0. They just don’t seem to be that team. Year after year they show regular season flashes of playoff potential, and year after year they come up short. And, lo and behold, Tuesday night proved no different.
As far as playoff basketball games go, this wasn’t one to be called an instant classic. The teams remained close through much of the first half, with the Hawks trying to get out and run the ball and the Celtics trying to slow things down and play in the half court. Paul Pierce came out firing, and didn’t let up until the final buzzer. The Hawks gained a bit of momentum after half time, and went up by as many as 11 in the third, before the Celtics pushed back, drew even, and wrestled the victory out of the Hawks dumbstruck talons. And then The Truth Tebowed at centre court.
The Go-To Guys
Paul Pierce: Undoubtedly the story of the game, Pierce took over from the opening tip. He was straight up locked in last night, sticking long fall-away jumpers, getting above the rim, icing the game with key free throws, and generally showing a lot of jump and mobility for a guy who’ll turn 35 this year.
At one point in the first, he was guarded by Tracy McGrady who, for the 90% of you who don’t care about T-Mac anymore, is coming off the Hawks bench. As Tracy buckled down and played some surprisingly tight D, it occurred to me that Pierce is actually the older of that duo by two years. It puts his continuing production into a pretty impressive light. While Tracy is quietly wasting away to an afterthought, Paul is playing every game like it’s his last, and is still a force to be reckoned with around the league. Awesome.
Josh Smith: J-Smoove wasn’t the factor in game 2 that he was in game 1, but he played with energy and aggression that night, something that is too often missing from his game. There was a moment early on when he blew a mildly contested double pump reverse, and then lost the ball out of bounds. While coaches generally lose years off of their lives over plays like that, just the fact that Josh was involved and looking to get the crowd behind him is an encouraging sign for the Hawks. He showed off a wide selection of his seemingly endless repertoire of shills last night: grabbing monster boards, leading the break at 6’10”, penetrating off the perimeter.
But he couldn’t knock down as many jump shots as he did in game 1, and that hurt the Hawks. He’ll need to regain his shooting touch if they are to have any chance at stealing a game in Boston.
Jeff Teague: Teague has to be one of the most underrated players in the NBA. He’s been starting for the Hawks all year long, sharing point guard duties with Kirk Heinrich, a proven player in the league. He’s athletically explosive, he plays tough D, he can hit an open shot, and he’s in control on the break. Plus, he seems to genuinely care about winning.
There was a play in the second quarter where he left his check, Keyon Dooling, in the corner pocket to try and help out on Kevin Garnett, who was set up in the high post on the other side of the floor. After he barely missed intercepting the entry pass to KG, KG kicked it back out, and the Celtics rifled the ball around the three point perimeter to Dooling, now wide open in the corner.
Teague regained himself, sprinted 40 feet back across the floor, took a wild leap 10 feet away from Dooling just the three was being launched, and swatted the shot into the fifth row. It was the kind of play that makes true sports fans heads salivate. The hustle! The determination! The grit! Exactly the sort of defensive sequence the Hawks will need to produce moving forward.
Avery Bradley: With starting guards Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo sidelined by an ankle injury and general psychosis, respectively, the Celtics leaned heavy on second year guard Avery Bradley in game 2. Bradley, a former high school super star, has been nothing but solid throughout this NBA season, flying miles below the radar despite earning a reputation for lock down defence and major hops. He played last night’s game much as he’s played most of the season; not making mistakes, not getting noticed, and then pouncing on an opponent for a huge rejection. Last night’s victim: the aforementioned Jeff Teague. Watching these two youngsters battle it out over the next three or more games should be very interesting, and may prove to be a pivotal match-up in the series moving forward.
The Celtics robbed the Hawks of all momentum last night, and are now gleefully looking forward to bringing that momentum back to their always raucous fans in Boston. With the return of Rajon Rondo to the court and the national spotlight, the Hawks are going to find it very hard to regain home-court advantage.
It will take Josh Smith finding his jump shot, Jeff Teague continuing his solid play, and Joe Johnson doing something, anything, to validate being mentioned in a BALLnROLL article to win in Boston. And for the Celtics? Keep slowing it down, keep grinding inside, keep winning the way you know how to win, and please, for the love of God, stop Tebowing.