BOSTON – With health out the window and shooting nowhere to be found, the Celtics needed to outwork and outsmart the Hawks for 48 minutes in Game 6. They didn’t come close.
The Celtics suffered a slow death in the Hawks’ vice grip as their season ended with another blowout loss.
No matter who Stevens threw out there with Isaiah Thomas, the Hawks swarmed and suffocated each possession during the middle quarters.
Al Horford was perfect in every which way, shooting 7 for 8 from the field. Horford had 15 points and a plus-25 differential in 25 minutes before having to return to put away the Celtics' comeback in the final stretch. He finished with three blocks, two steals and a plus-19 differential. Every second Horford was on the floor through the early fourth quarter, the Hawks’ advantage grew.
The Hawks had yet another third-quarter blitzkrieg, scoring 39 points after starting the half with a 14-5 run. Every time the Celtics fought back, the Hawks raced the lead back up to 20.
"I think it put a lot of pressure on us to then play from behind in this case," Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. "Then try to hit home runs and as a result, you have some haphazard possessions and those lead to points."
The Hawks’ lead ballooned to 28 in the early fourth quarter after a Dennis Schroder cutting layup. But Jae Crowder responded with a three on the other end and kick started a 22-6 run until he fouled out with three minutes left.
"They went on a run, we didn't respond," Crowder said. "They created separation right before the half. They went on a run and we didn't respond the right way."
With such a big deficit, Boston needed to be perfect. The Hawks kept getting to open weak-side shooters, but they couldn’t close it out somehow. The Hawks’ phenomenal execution never waned, but the shots that gave them the lead were no longer falling.
It all ended when Isaiah Thomas hit a floating finger roll to make it a 10-point game. The Hawks responded with a stampeding fast break that ended with a Paul Millsap three-point play to put it to bed. The Hawks began fouling intentionally as the Celtics wasted away at the free throw line.
Despite Tyler Zeller's surprise contributions on both ends during the fourth-quarter comeback, the massive gulf between the two teams did not leave wiggle room for any misses or fouls. The Celtics got close to single digits, but committed an unfortunate foul or missed a crucial shot whenever the door looked ajar. Thomas, much like the end of the last game of the previous season against Cleveland, unsuccessfully tried to lead the scoring brigade back to shore after being stranded at sea.
"It's very emotional for me just because we gave it all," Thomas said as his eyes welled up. "We never put our head down. And like I said, this group of guys is something special. I gave it my all, so that's why it hurts that much more. I wish I could've done more, but it just happened to be like that. So it is tough for me."
What was an even matchup at the outset of the series could never be fair game with Avery Bradley and Kelly Olynyk unavailable – or in Olynyk’s case unusable – while Jae Crowder played hurt and Jared Sullinger played in cement shoes.
"I just think we didn't come up to our standards," said Jonas Jerebko, the one player who exceeded expectations for the Celtics. "Our ball movement wasn't what it was supposed to be. We didn't really take advantage of our open shots."
"They did. they played well," Jerebko continued. "They moved the ball and played like a unit. They were tough to beat today and all credit to Atlanta."
The cloud of inconvenient timing of poor health will linger much like Doc Rivers' unforgettable assertion that the Celtics would have beat the 2010 Lakers had Kendrick Perkins not gone down in Game 6. While this Celtics team could have survived the loss of Avery Bradley, it meant players like Crowder and Olynyk playing to the best of their abilities.
But their previous injuries resurfaced and slowed them down. Olynyk hardly played in the series, while Crowder was visibly inhibited by his bad ankle.
"It was a very tough series for me," Crowder said. "But I'm not here to make any excuses about that. It was a tough series for me, but my teammates never stopped believing in me and I just tried to get through it. I came out every night, gave it my best, so I can sleep good knowing I gave it my all."
Yet it was the Celtics’ struggles to stem the Hawk’s tidal wave runs that did them in. Boston came into the series as an unrelenting force trying to pick apart the Hawks' well-lubricated machine. But with bodies down and inferior skill, the Celtics will have to return next year with a better army built around Thomas.