ATLANTA - As Avery Bradley went down, so did the Boston Celtics' identity.
The team that beats its opponent on the break, wins every 50-50 ball and answers every run gasped for air in the worst first quarter playoff performance in NBA history. The Celtics were eventually hammered into submission by the Hawks 89-72 and head back to Boston down 2-0 in the First Round series.
The Hawks had a franchise playoff-record 15 blocks while the Celtics nearly set a new franchise record low with a 31.8 percent field goal percentage. But the damage was done early when the Hawks raced out to a 23-4 lead in the first 6:32, with Kyle Korver looking like a bird out of its cage with Bradley in street clothes. Korver and Jeff Teague combined for 19 points during the run, hitting five of their six threes.
"We all have pride, right?" Korver said. "We want to come out and play better in the second game. I think I was playing pretty focused. I knocked down a couple shots early, which was great."
The Celtics scored just 7 points in the first quarter, an NBA playoff record.
"Korver is like one of the main things we talk about every time we walk in this building, every time we walk into the hotel, every time we land in Atlanta, we know that we have to be in his airspace or else we're toast," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "And you knew coming off a 1-for-10 game, he was going to have the hunger to make shots and take shots early on so we talked about that."
The Celtics were sent scrambling into transition defense with every miss and were constantly cross-matched. Stevens couldn't figure out who to put on Korver or how to keep track with him. Things eventually boiled over when Korver hit a dagger three in RJ Hunter's face after the rookie lost him through a mess of cross-screens. As Stevens angrily called timeout, he stared through Hunter with the furor of Bernie Sanders at a Brooklyn polling station.
"It was just a matter of we lost him a few times and our transition D was bad, especially in that first quarter," Stevens said. "We had some moments throughout the game where our transition D was bad. But that first quarter, they were moving at one speed we weren't at."
The Hawks mastered the art of confusion, setting up Kyle Korver on one wing in transition, creating a mass of confusion in the paint which Korver would slip through and appear untouched on the other side.
In this play, Korver starts on the left elbow with Marcus Smart sitting deep on him as the Hawks come down in transition. Korver gets across the top of the key as the blob of Hawks players converge in front of him. Marcus Smart ends up getting picked off by Jared Sullinger and ends up completely lost as the pass to Korver is thrown.
"That's been our thing to come out slow," Evan Turner said. "They came out running. They seem like they came out more prepared than we did."
The Celtics threw RJ Hunter out there as well, but he looked like a rookie who just played 67 minutes after the All-Star break. Hunter often had his hips facing the wrong direction and looked like he was playing a high-stakes game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey whenever the Hawks gave Korver a few screens.
Although the Celtics actually outscored the Hawks 69-65 after the five-minute mark in the first quarter, they never got within single digits the rest of the night.
They held Paul Millsap and Kent Bazemore to 2-for-22 shooting after the tidal wave passed, but Al Horford turned in an elite night. He hit a treble of threes en route to a game-high 17 points one game after several television pundits determined he was not deserving of being labeled a great player.
The Hawks' tremendous depth shined through, as each player took over a moment of the game while Horford was the steady rock all night. He battled Amir Johnson all over the floor, who was the only Celtics player who deserved to keep his chin up heading back to Boston.
But the Hawks saw the Celtics' vulnerable spot without Bradley and kept throwing punch after punch until the TKO was apparent. At least Marcus Smart's ribs may live to tell the story.
"It felt like I got hit by a boxer with a body shot and I just went to the ground," Smart said about the knee to the ribs he took that took him out of the game for a short while. He will get more tests in Boston, but expects to play in Game 3.
Stevens would be out of options if Smart were limited in Game 3. With Bradley down, Smart was the initial assignment on Korver. But when that failed, Stevens tried Hunter and Terry Rozier on him.
Rozier had a decent evening and contributed in every other aspect of the game as he is ought to do, but he is another player who is just barely getting by on defense with his freakish athleticism.
Over the last five minutes of the first quarter, in a successful attempt to stem the bleeding, Stevens employed two lineups that have never played together before.
He first went with Rozier, Turner, Crowder, Jonas Jerebko and Tyler Zeller. He then replaced Crowder with Hunter and Zeller with Sullinger. Both lineups stopped the Hawks' run as Evan Turner got his offense going.
The first quarter exposed one of the only notable compromises Stevens made this season, as he chose to only phase in Rozier when injury dictated and left Hunter on the end of the bench for most of 2016. Now Stevens is relying on his rookies to step in against one of the most efficient and effective back courts in the game. He still refuses to go to Jordan Mickey, even though Al Horford was the lead in Tyler Zeller's tango lesson Tuesday night.
"I thought the other night, we didn't shoot it great, but we had done some good things," Stevens said. "We had settled ourselves defensively. Here it never felt like we were at their level. Hey, we're gonna have to figure that out. We're gonna have to get to their level and play like that Friday night."
Korver is a classic shooter and will at some point ebb and flow his way to the median. But Bradley's presence served as an equalizer against a historically great sniper that, while not playing at the incredible peak he hit last season, is still bound for a few performances like he had in Game 2.
Atlanta has proven that every time you divert resources to plug one hole, another torrent erupts on the other side. The Celtics return to Boston with a million lessons learned and the support of the home fans waiting for them. But with nearly every key player struggling with injury or simply faltering in Jared Sullinger's case, perfect execution may be the only medicine still in the cabinet.