Nothing came easy for the Celtics last night, even during a first half in which the now routinely undermanned C's fought hard to earn a six point lead at the break (45-39). But when play began in the third quarter, it looked like Boston had left most of its fight in the locker room. After a first half in which the Celtics moved the ball (13 assists) cleaned up on the glass (20 rebounds) and didn't hand Atlanta many extra possessions (only eight turnovers), it all came to a crashing halt in the third quarter.
After posting 45 points in the first half, Boston managed just 15 points total in the third frame, shooting a putrid 5-22 (22.7 percent) from the field in the process. Their shooting percentage dropped from a respectable 45.9 percent at halftime to a less than desirable 37.3 percent heading into the fourth quarter. When it was all said and done the Hawks had outscored the Celtics 29-15 in the third period and it proved to be the key difference in the game.
But it wasn't just the shooting numbers in the third period that crippled the Celtics last night. On top of not being able to buy a bucket, the Celtics did many other things poorly, while the Hawks took advantage and found their stride, earning the support of the crowd in the process.After a gritty first half in which the Celtics refused to back down, despite playing without Kevin Garnett, Marquis Daniels and Tony Allen, their overall energy level took a nosedive. Their transition game in the first half caught the Hawks off guard and it allowed them to score easy points on the break. Unfortunately they took their foot off the gas pedal in the third period, while the Hawks decided to floor their offensive engine. Atlanta sprinted out on the break and it resulted in three pivotal three-pointers from Marvin Williams (11:07), Joe Johnson (10:22) and Mike Bibby (9:06) in the first three minutes of the quarter. Bibby's three gave Atlanta a 50-49 lead at the time. All the Celtics had worked for and earned in the first half was erased before the third quarter was even halfway finished.
It's difficult to gauge fatigue while a game is still being played, but the Celtics certainly looked tired in last night's third quarter, judging by the heavy number of shots that clanked off the front of the rim. Closely tied in with that was the poor shot clock management the Celtics demonstrated for much of the evening. Rasheed Wallace compiled another dismal performance from three-point nation (1-8 on the evening), but over half of those were what I deem "bailout" threes, as the ball found Rasheed's hands with mere seconds left on the clock and he had to hoist them up in order to avoid an unnecessary turnover.
While the team as a whole didn't perform well in the third period, Rajon Rondo in particular never managed to get things going during the third frame. After putting together a solid eight-point, four-assist first half, Rondo's presence was immediately removed from the third quarter. He was unable to impose his will defensively and more importantly his aggressiveness on the offensive end disappeared almost entirely. If not for tipping in an Eddie House missed layup with less than a minute left in the frame, he would have been held scoreless and on top of that, he failed to record a single assist in the period as well. Granted, he did hit the floor hard after being taken out by Mike Bibby (no foul was called) around the eight minute mark of the quarter, but it's not as if that single play suddenly cut off his energy level. It was never present from the start.
There was visible frustration in the Celtics' huddle during the timeout Doc Rivers called following that takedown by Bibby. Whether it was frustration over the lack of a call or over their poor start to the quarter, it took Boston until the fourth quarter to really get their rhythm back.
While much of the blame falls on the Celtics, credit the Hawks for finding their groove during the third quarter and for giving their fans something to cheer about. After the string of threes by Williams, Johnson and Bibby, the Hawks' defense took flight, as Josh Smith completely rejected a Kendrick Perkins putback attempt with 7:20 to go. That got the crowd going, but the noise level went up a whole other decibel less then thirty second later when Smith threw down a lob pass from Bibby, making it 56-49 Atlanta while capping off an 11-0 offensive spurt.
Going into halftime not a single Atlanta starter had yet reached double figures in scoring. By the end of the third period, all five Atlanta Starters had at least 11 points.
Despite all of the frustration that mounted during the third frame, the Celtics closed the quarter on a 7-0 run and gave the Hawks a scare throughout the final period. But Jamal Crawford put his stamp on the game in the fourth and personally made sure the Celtics comeback came up short. The C's actually played pretty well in the final quarter (Pierce had nine points, Rondo had six assists, the team shot 9-17 from the field), and if they had been able to put together a more productive third quarter, the final score might have ended up in their favor.