Sometimes you're the punching bag (Keith P. Smith): In the second half, things got chippy in Boston. Dwight Howard fouled Isaiah Thomas "hard" on a play where Thomas blew by him to get in the paint. The reason it was "hard" was that the massive size difference between the two made it look way worse than it was. Then Howard shoved Al Horford to pick up a technical foul a couple of plays later. Finally, Howard got himself ejected (on a very questionable technical) for hanging on the rim after a follow-up dunk.
So, what does all this foolishness from Howard have to do with the Celtics? He set the tone that Atlanta was going throw the punches in this game. And tonight, the Celtics were the punching bag. They never fought back on either end and took their lumps. Play like this has become as rare as an endangered species in these parts. The Celtics have been good about being the aggressor and fighting back up off the mat after getting their mouths bloodied. For whatever reason, that wasn't there tonight.
But, if we know anything about this team over the last few years, they'll fight back. And with the champs in town on Wednesday, you can expect the Celtics to come out swinging. At least they had better, otherwise the refs might stop that one early with the way the Cavaliers can pound a team.
Slippery Slope (Bobby Manning): As Andrew Bogut prepares to put pen to paper, it's only fitting that the Celtics are having a crisis around the rim. 60-34 in paint points tonight, 55-40 on the boards. The Celtics' offensive system is brilliant, becoming one of the best we've seen, but deficits like these aren't going to work.
The Celtics don't need to become world beaters in rim protection, rebounding and defense overall but come playoff time they must become at least competitive. It starts with Bogut and luckily they're still in the running.
His 5.3 defensive box plus minus would lead the NBA if he qualified. That was the level of interior defense Tim Duncan provided. Bogut may be an injury waiting to happen but if he joins he gives the Celts an impact player in an area where they've been nonexistent in their recent games. Dribble penetration has destroyed their defense more than the rebounding, when a player finds the paint it's all over. Proving some opposition there would be key. The thought of Bogut instead being in a Cavaliers uniform Wednesday is fear-inducing. This is another moment, especially in the wake of Kyle Lowry going down, where the Celts have to ask themselves how much they want it this year. I hope the phone call to the Aussie center is an urgent one.
Gone, but not forgotten (Bill Sy): This was a dud of a game. The Celtics shot a paltry 39.1% from the field, including 10-of-34 from behind the arc. They turned the ball over 18 times and couldn’t capitalize on Dwight Howard’s clownish ejection in the third quarter. On nights like this, it’s best just to throw out the tape and forget about it, but Brad Stevens won’t. The Celtics didn’t play hard last night, but the Hawks deserve a lot of credit. They played physical and got into Boston to disrupt their offense.
With Dwight in the middle, the Hawks are able to play up on the perimeter with the 6’8” Paul Millsap, the 6’7” Thabo Sefalosha, and the 6’5” Kent Bazemore. As Stevens noted, Atlanta is one of the best defensive teams at “using their hands”, and with that wing span and athleticism, they can afford to be aggressive on the ball because of their legit rim protector patrolling the paint. Here’s the biggest difference in the game: the Hawks were 26 for 46 on contested shots, whereas the Celtics only made 16 of their 46. Additionally, Boston was 17 of 42 in the restricted area.
Looking ahead, the Celtics would love to avoid teams like the Hawks (and Raptors) in the playoffs. Boston in their own right is a good defensive team because they have a handful of players that embody the simple defensive rule of basketball: “stay between your man and the basket.” While Atlanta and Toronto don’t exactly have the foot speed and size of Bradley, Smart, and Crowder, their length is going to be a problem.
Schadenfreude (Jared Weiss): Sometimes, karma comes around real fast. Sometimes, the Basketball Gods throw metaphors in your face to foreshadow your down fall.
Dwight Howard was ejected at the 4:03 mark in the third quarter. It was obviously supposed to be the turning point in this game, where the Celtics finally were freed from their kryptonite with Superman back in the locker room.
In a twist so grand that Moonlight won Best Picture all over again, the Hawks beat the Celtics 36-21 from the Howard ejection to the 2:40 mark in the fourth quarter when coach Mike Budenholzer threw in his garbage-time unit.
Kent Bazemore won best supporting actor, but Tim Hardaway put in his Emma Stone performance. He belted high notes from deep and tapped dance his way to the rim with ease.
Avery Bradley returned, and Jaylen Brown looks more and more like he’s going to be a playoff factor, but the Celtics clearly opened the wrong envelope Monday night.
The game was not without some history, as Jonas Jerebko pulled off the greatest ankle breaking in NBA history. The Swedish Larry Bird charged down the floor in transition, dipped his head to shift from third gear to...well third gear still, and sent Malcolm Delaney to his leprechaun grave.