BOSTON (CBS) -- What a difference a week makes.
The Hawks walked off the court last Tuesday with a playoff stranglehold over the Celtics, up 2-0 in the series and looking poised to take at least one of two as the series shifted back to Boston. That would have made Tuesday night's Game 5 a potential clincher in Atlanta.
Instead, the Celtics righted their wrongs from the first two games and took both games on their home court to tie the series, which will last until at least Thursday night when one of the two teams will have a chance to advance to their impending date with the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Celtics have momentum on their side after an epic overtime win in Game 4, and while they didn't play particularly well for large chunks of time in Games 1 and 2, they have a good idea of what they'll have to do Tuesday to get a win in Atlanta.
Winning at Philips Arena would be something new for these C's, who have dropped all four games in Atlanta this season and have each of their last six visits. We'll see just how much the momentum from their wins in Game 3 and 4 mean tonight, as the Celtics look to turn the tables on the Hawks in Atlanta.
Here's what we'll be watching for:
Calling Boston's two starts in Atlanta "ugly" would be an understatement and an insult to ugly ducklings around the world. The Celtics fell behind by 11 points in Game 1 after shooting just 27 percent in the opening frame, and were even worse in Game 2 when they began 3-of-23 from the floor -- leading to just seven first quarter points. It was the worst start in NBA playoff history, in case you hadn't read that 100+ times.
Such offensive offense cannot happen Tuesday night when they return to Philips Arena.
"Bottom line is you have to [start strong] in every game," Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said Monday afternoon. "I guess that in every game you can make it a major emphasis whatever the case may be, but this is the Playoffs; you just played 80-plus games. If intensity or hard-playing is an issue, then you're in trouble and you don't really need to go over anything else."
Stevens joked that he wouldn't recommend his team to fall into a 24-3 hole like they did in Game 2.
"Just generally speaking, that would be a bad thing," Stevens deadpanned. "I didn't think we lacked effort in Game 2. We just didn't play well in the first five minutes. Then you're swimming uphill the rest of the game, and that's bad. They played at a different pace than we did in Game 2 at the start. That can't happen again."
The Celtics cured those ills in Boston with Jonas Jerebko and Evan Turner injecting some energy into the starting five, but will have a much tougher time getting that start-of-game jolt away from their home floor. It's imperative that they come out with that same level of energy as the last two games, because the Hawks are going to be eager to get off to a fast start of their own in front of their fans and their ugly t-shirts.
Marcus On Millsap?
Paul Millsap went off to start Game 4 on Sunday night, and torched Boston for 45 points and 13 rebounds.
While that's a monster stat line, the Hawks' best player was shut down for much of the fourth quarter and overtime thanks to the defensive mastery of Marcus Smart. Stevens put his defensively dynamic guard on a player who stands four inches taller and has about forty pounds on him, but Smart was up to the challenge. He neutralized Millsap to just four points over the final 14 minutes of the game, holding him scoreless in overtime. It was like watching a kid try to defend his father but it worked like a charm, as the Hawks forced the ball to Millsap and fell out of the offensive rhythm that had helped them build a 16-point lead in the third quarter.
He may not start on Millsap, but if the C's need to slow him down and frustrate him at some point in Game 5, expect to see Smart back out there trying to be the best pest he can be.
Who Steps Up Aside IT?
Smart was also a force on the offensive end in Game 4 with 20 points, with 11 of those coming in the fourth quarter alone. He was a great running mate for Isaiah Thomas, who is averaging 28.3 points for the series but still needs a sidekick on the offensive side. We know Thomas can hit those big shots in the end, but someone needs to fill in the blanks in between.
The best part of this Celtics team is that role could go to any player at any given time. While Smart took over in the fourth quarter, it was Jonas Jerebko who helped spark the comeback in the third quarter. Jae Crowder, still a shell of his usual self, got Boston's offense going after tipoff with five of their first seven points.
Thomas needs a running mate, but it's likely not going to be the same guy throughout an entire game. It will be important for the Celtics to find the hot hand not attached to No. 4, whoever that may be for any stretch.
How Will Hawks Bounce Back?
While we're focused on the Celtics, we should also be wondering how the Hawks will bounce back. They suffered an epic meltdown in Game 4, coughing up a 16-point lead in the third quarter before wetting themselves in the final seconds of regulation. The Hawks made just six of their 19 shots from the floor in the fourth quarter, and were way too confident after Jeff Teague hit back-to-back threes in the closing minute to put them on top 92-90. They let Isaiah Thomas run around everyone for the game-tying layup, and Teague lost his mind on Atlanta's final possession that would make even your rec league "coach" cringe in agony.
In overtime, Atlanta made just one of their eight shots from the floor. Now they return home with all the pressure on their shoulders. They have a very good coach in Mike Budenholzer and enough veteran leadership to handle that added pressure, but are ripe for the Celtics' taking. Boston can really make them sweat with a good start and that nearly suffocating defense they displayed in the fourth quarter and overtime of Game 4.
Winning Game 5 is a must for Boston if they want to take this series. Otherwise they would face a pair of win-or-go-home games, with Game 7 -- if it gets that far -- back in Atlanta.
Tune in to Celtics-Hawks Game 5 on 98.5 The Sports Hub -- the flagship station of the Boston Celtics. Pregame coverage with Sean Grande and Cedric Maxwell begins at 8pm!
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