By Kevin Henkin
Hey, it’s like déjà vu. Hey, it’s like déjà vu.
In Game 2 of the first round series between the Atlanta Hawks and the Boston Celtics, it was more of the same as already witnessed in Game 1. The Celtics won the battle in every conceivable area of the game, most notably on team defense, rebounding and ball management, not to mention the additional battles of will and poise. They also won, of course, on point total, by a score of 96-77. If you didn’t happen to watch the game, trust me when I tell you that it wasn’t even as close as the lopsided score indicates.
The only real dramas that unfolded over the course of the evening were the plotlines of whether Mike Bibby would crack under the pressure (he looked agitated both by the crowd offended by his needless comments about them and his own continued poor performance) and the curious reasoning behind why Celtics Coach Doc Rivers insisted on leaving in his stars on the floor far too late into the game, well after the imminent victory was clearly under wraps. On the latter point, Rivers didn’t remove Paul Pierce until 3:01 remaining in the fourth (the Celtics were up by 21 at that point) nor Kevin Garnett until 2:20 remaining despite the fact that Hawk Al Horford clearly had some bones to pick and the threat of a fracas between the players seemed real. Garnett ended up with just a shade under 35 minutes for the night and Pierce logged 28 despite suffering a lower back strain that led him out of the game and into the locker room during the first half. True, the teams won’t play again until Saturday but the seemingly lax care of his two primary stars was uncharacteristic for Rivers, who has otherwise demonstrated a deft touch in managing the workload of his aging veterans this season.
As for the competition between the two teams, Dick Stockton of TNT put it well enough in stating at one point in the second half, “The Atlanta Hawks have run into a buzz saw here.” The most important numbers to come away with to get a sense of the one-sided nature of the game are as follows:
– Atlanta had 10 assists on 23 baskets versus Boston’s 23 on 35.
– Atlanta turned the ball over 22 times as compared to Boston’s 14.
– Atlanta shot 38.3% overall and 0-5 from behind the arc whereas Boston shot a subpar 41.7% but made up for it by hitting 7 of 18 from deep waters.
– Boston also won on the glass with 57 rebounds versus Atlanta’s 45.
The only category that Atlanta came out favorable was in the frequency of their trips to the line, with 40 freebies as compared to Boston’s 26. The disparity was largely driven by the officiating crew’s sudden and inexplicable inability to be able to decipher the difference between a charge and a blocking foul, at least on one end of the floor. Regardless, it wasn’t enough of a difference to help the hapless Hawks, who at times looked lost, especially in those moments following the several occasions in which Boston capitalized on some obvious breakdowns in Atlanta’s team defense.
Outside of statistics, however, one still gets the slightly uneasy sense that the Celtics are playing down to their competition. TNT showed a clip of Doc Rivers speaking to his team just before the game, pointing out that the Hawks hadn’t seen the best of Boston in Game 1. He was right. If he says it again on Saturday, he’ll be right again because tonight’s end result had as much to do with Atlanta’s ineptness as Boston’s adequate if occasionally spotty play. For those of us who watched this Celtics team all season long, we’re accustomed to and still waiting for better. It’s not an imminent need yet because better isn’t really necessary to beat this young Atlanta squad. Nonetheless, it’s always an encouraging feeling to know that your team is playing its best ball at the right time of year, heading into a new series against a more challenging opponent.
This isn’t a call to panic, not even close, but rather just a calmly made observation. It’s what Boston fans will be focused on for the remainder of this series. It’s a luxury for sure, to be able to sit back and look at the bigger picture rather than fret over the possibility of losing in the series presently underway. Boston’s ability (or not) to raise their game back to the next level is the real remaining drama here now because the change in venue to Atlanta isn’t likely to be enough to alter the results that we’ve seen between these two teams thus far. Boston is indeed a buzz saw and Atlanta is, well, a work in progress. This will be a useful learning experience for them in the long run. In the short-term, I’m sure it’s just an exercise in frustration. Hopefully, from Boston’s perspective anyway, that frustration doesn’t lead to a will and intent to injure.
Two games to go. Get the job done in the workmanlike fashion that has defined the Celtics’ approach thus far in the series, play a bit better and keep everyone healthy. That’s where the priorities now lie for the men in green. Until Saturday…