ATLANTA – The playoffs are all about resiliency. When you get knocked down, can you get back up?
Brad Stevens asked his team that question in their regular season finale and it triggered the biggest comeback in the NBA this season.
The Celtics nearly pulled it off again Saturday night in Game 1 against the Hawks. But they walked away from the loss with an even bigger problem, as Avery Bradley said he heard a pop in his strained right hamstring before being carried off the floor in the middle of the fourth quarter.
"I took a few steps and I just couldn't walk," Bradley said. "My main focus is just trying to get treatment so I can get back as soon as possible."
Bradley said he hopes to return for Game 2, but he sounds like the only optimistic guy in the locker room, or anywhere.
"We lost a brother," Smart said. "But we've got players that can step up and are going to have to step up. We're going to miss Avery."
"A hamstring is nothing to play with," Jae Crowder said. "He's a fast type of guy so he needs his hamstrings as much as possible. I don't know how serious it is."
Saturday night, the Celtics kept getting knocked down and kept getting back up. They had a dreadful first half, shooting 2-for-16 from three. They committed five fouls in the first two minutes of the half and set the stage for a blowout loss. But they kept fighting and ended up winning the third 31-21.
The Hawks’ lead plateaued until Marcus Smart hit a three going into the TV timeout. The Celtics came out of it raining treys, as they went on a 9-2 run before Bradley's injury killed the momentum.
It was a back-and-forth battle the rest of the way, with Isaiah Thomas taking over offensively for the Celtics. He scored nine straight points – six of them at the line -- as the Hawks maintained a small lead. Thomas scored 21 points in the second half with 13 coming in the final period.
Marcus Smart’s pair of threes contributed to his 11 point fourth quarter performance. But both Thomas and Smart were imperfect.
Thomas missing the first of three free throws with 3:52 left proved to be the difference in the game. But it was Smart’s intentional foul of Kent Bazemore with 36 seconds left that proved to be the fatal error.
"Last time I checked, I thought the time was lower than 24, but I made a costly mistake," Smart said. "It’s something I have to learn from."
The Celtics were down three with at least one possession left, making the take foul the wrong play in such a crucial situation.
While Isaiah Thomas' free throws kept the game alive, Jeff Teague was too good of a playmaker for Atlanta while Kent Bazemore made every important play to keep Atlanta ahead. Teague thrived with Bradley off the floor and it allowed the Hawks to maintain control right when the Celtics had busted through their door.
"Without [Bradley], Jeff may have gotten even more aggressive and found some situations we like," Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said.
But Isaiah hit a miracle 30-footer with a just barely a second left to keep the game a fight to the finish. After the Celtics fouled, Al Horford inbounded the ball with 0.4 seconds left.
While it would be virtually impossible to take a shot in this situation, Smart somehow came down with the lob pass with one hand, turned his arm in and rifled a 50-foot football pass that came perilously close to the rim.
That would have been the greatest physical act in the history of space-time. https://t.co/qFCjeOcf50— J A R E D W E I S S (@CLNS_JaredWeiss) April 17, 2016
FIRST HALF FALTER
The Celtics picked up where they left off in Wednesday night’s win over the Heat, sleep walking their way to a 51-34 deficit at the half. They did not score a single fast break point while Jae Crowder shot 1-for-10 and Isaiah Thomas shot 2-for-8.
They went 2-for-16 (12.5 percent) from deep, but shot 25-for-50 from the field and 9-for-19 from deep in the second half. The Hawks conversely shot just 14-for-41 (36.6 percent) and 1-for-14 from deep in the second half.
The Hawks slowed the pace and forced the Celtics to play in the half court, which is like sitting Superman down for a roasted Kryptonite casserole paired with a heavy Absinthe.
"We’re a team that doesn’t really like playing in the halfcourt," Thomas said.
"We’ve got to figure the first half thing out," Crowder said. "It’s killing us."
Ironically, the Celtics played at a high pace, attempting 52 shots in the first half and 50 in the second half. But the team relies on transition buckets to make up for their lack of consistent shooting and Thomas and Turner being their only ball handlers.
The Celtics put up an ofer in the fastbreak points column in the first half, but had 15 in the second half. The biggest problem for the Celtics is that going small for the last 44 minutes of the game is an advantage in the transition game against most of the league excerpt against Atlanta.
"[It’s] somewhat predictable coming into this series, based on our game last Saturday," Stevens said about going small most of the game. They rely on Crowder to hold on for dear life against Paul Millsap, perhaps the most versatile scoring brute at his position in the game.
With Avery Bradley unlikely to play in game 2 – despite his best intentions – the Celtics will rely on Marcus Smart to step up and possibly rookie Terry Rozier to bring defensive energy.
But if they want to win this series without the steady Bradley, they will need to play every half like it’s the fourth quarter.