The Boston Celtics went into halftime with a ten-point deficit at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks. Everything the Celtics were trying to do was being stymied, and they were being outworked on the glass 32-24. Whatever was said in the locker room made a huge difference. When the Celtics came out to start the third quarter, they put their foot on the gas and never looked back.
It’s always nice to look towards a team's star players and pinpoint their scoring explosions as the catalyst for a roster turning the tide midway through a game. And that’s exactly what happened, as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown combined for 27 points - four more than the entire Hawks roster managed. Teams have to be able to rely on their stars.
However, the biggest issue for Boston throughout the first half of the contest wasn’t that their offense was poor. Instead, we went back to the same old story of not being able to make shots, specifically from three. Over the first two quarters of play, the Celtics went 4-for-20 from deep, but in the end, 17-of-45 from overall.
When Tatum hit his first three-point attempt of the third quarter, you could feel the momentum begin to shift.
That bucket was the first of six for Tatum, who then snapped out of his first-half slump. But it wasn’t just the St. Louis native who awoke from a first-half slumber, as Brown also came to life, getting the crowd on its feet with this nifty crossover to beat his man and get a beautiful finish at the rim.
We could look at the scoring all day, but in truth, Boston’s shots just started to fall. Sure, the ball was pinging faster, and cutters were more decisive in their movements, but ultimately it was familiar execution with a greater end product, and when the Celtics play like this, things will generally work out.
Yet, some of Boston’s recent struggles when facing the Hawks have come on the defensive end of the floor. And for the first half of the contest, those struggles were apparent again. In truth, the Hawks are constructed in such a way that their offensive gravity forces defensive mistakes. There’s a reason why the team ranks 3rd in the NBA for offensive rating. But the Celtics are fast becoming known as one of the premier defensive units in the league, and in the third quarter, they put the clamps on.
When a team has multiple offensive threats on the perimeter, you can be forgiven for allowing some interior buckets. Your primary objective is to limit the team's threes, and control the glass when shots don’t fall. The Celtics held the Hawks to 3-of-10 shooting from deep and won the battle on the glass 11-4 during the third quarter.
Let’s given Brown his credit for the above play. After running into a stern screen from De’Andre Hunter, the Atlanta native still manages to get back into the play and make Kevin Huerter feel his close-out, which adds incredible pressure onto the shot attempt.
If we zone out on the Celtics positioning as the shot is taken, we’re able to peel off another layer of the team's defensive positioning. You have Al Horford battling Clint Capela on the perimeter, which limits Atlanta’s best defender from getting towards the rim for a putback or second-chance opportunity. Robert Williams is hovering around the mid-post so he can tag any roll towards the rim, or box out if necessary.
Tatum is providing low help and is in the perfect position to dominate the rebounding area, while Brown is out on the weakside wing to kill any passing lane to Trae Young if the Hawks do secure the offensive board.
The reason the above play has been used as a defensive example is two-fold: first, it shows Brown’s defensive upside due to his ability to fight through contact and remain in possession, and second, the final seconds illustrate how disciplined the Celtics have become in their positioning and defensive execution.
The above play is another good example of defensive positioning and goes to show how much trust the team has in one another. Sure, guys are in a position to help or tag, but nobody is panicking, instead, they let the play unfold and give Grant Williams the trust his defensive play deserves to pressure Bogdan Bogdanovic should he choose to shoot. Now, it’s important to remember that not every good defensive possession ends in a stop, and sometimes a standard possession like the one above will also see the ball find the bottom of the net.
But when you read between the lines and note positioning, rotations (if they occur), and the calmness with which the team operates, you begin to see a roster that’s at peace who they are and what they bring to the table.
The win against the Hawks didn’t solely occur because of the Celtics' dominant third quarter, but it put the team in good stead for the remainder of the game. And it reminded everybody that the Celtics are capable of beating some of the better offensive units in the league, even on nights where their shot isn’t falling.
Now let’s see how they do against Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers, which is another benchmark test in the team's viability and growth.