BOSTON — The Celtics were leading the Hawks by 30 points in the first game of their first-round playoff series when Cedric Maxwell called Dominique Wilkins across the media dining area in the underbelly of TD Garden.
“Nick!” The former Boston star-turned-broadcaster stifled a laugh and spoke to his Atlanta counterpart.
“I’ll give it,” the Hall of Famer replied, conceding the game and maybe 24 minutes in the series. “I give.”
The Celtics needed 11 seconds to dominate the opening game. Jaylen Brown stole Hawks point guard Trae Young’s first pass attempt, stalled in transition, probed four defenders and parted them like a red sea, leading the way with his 29 points.
“Letting them know from the jump is going to be a long night,” Brown said.
Two possessions later, Derrick White spurned Young’s first shot attempt, and an avalanche ensued. Boston ran a layup line in the first quarter, drilled 7-of-8 3-pointers in the second quarter and took an 84-52 lead into the third quarter. Atlanta cut the deficit to 12 minutes into the fourth quarter, but hope was fleeting. The Celtics simply remembered that they could create any shot they wanted and bend the Hawks to their will on the defensive end.
“I don’t think we were really ready,” said Atlanta guard DeJaunte Murray, who is no. 7th player and no. He said Game 1 must-knows are crucial to beating the No. 2 seed. “That’s the competitive word. I don’t think we’re really competitive.”
The final score settled at 112-99 in favor of Boston, but the performance gap was too wide. It was an all-out comeback that convinced the Celtics to destroy Atlanta in Game 2 on Tuesday.
New Boston coach Joe Mazzulla’s laugh broke through his usual stoicism when asked if he was worried about his team letting the Hawks off the mat. “Yeah, I’m really worried,” he joked. “No, I don’t care at all.”
“It’s good to know we can get a win and we can play well,” Mazzulla added.
With Young on about a third of their possessions and Murray on a quarter of them, the Celtics know what the Hawks want to do. No guards have anywhere to hunt. White, a guaranteed All-Defensive selection, started the night on Young. Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart pulled Murray. Next to them are the long arms and all-NBA athleticism of Brown and Jayson Tatum. Behind them are Al Horford, Robert Williams III or both paint protectors. The 6-foot-1 Young is a rookie in the redwoods.
Young missed his first six attempts and finished his night with 16 points on 5-of-18 shooting, good for a team-worst -14 rating. Murray needed 25 shots to get his team to 24 points. They committed five of their six turnovers in the first half and recorded the bulk of their 16 assists as the result became known.
Ask Hawks forward John Collins if the ball needs to find the frontcourt more, and his frustration is palpable.
“It definitely pays off for us to hit the misses and get easy buckets,” he told Yahoo Sports. “Sometimes the game just doesn’t go that way. I wish it was more, but I can’t describe it too much. Everyone getting involved and us getting easy buckets makes the whole offense more fluid.”
Meanwhile, Atlanta didn’t execute any of its defensive game plan, which revealed that Young and coach Quin Snyder were forcing Boston into long 2-pointers — not a new strategy. The Celtics attempted 82 of their 88 shots from the paint or the 3-point line, posting an effective field-goal percentage of 56.7%. Five of their six midrange attempts came after halftime, when they took their foot off the gas.
Collins said: “Defensively, it’s just preference.” Or lack thereof.
When Smart took a break from hunting Young’s defense, leaving him with equally favorable results on Collins, the Hawks must have realized they had bargained for a long night — and a short streak. Young looked for answers in the immediate effects of the game, and found little substance.
“They made shots. We didn’t get stops, they made shots,” reasoned the 24-year-old. “We’ve got to do a better job of not letting them take too many shots, but we’ve got to take some shots. …
“We’ve got to stay in front of our man and work better collectively, not let them take over.”
Do you think?
Snyder echoed the oversimplified refrain of his two-time All-Star point guard. While the Hawks may not have missed 19 of their 21 3-point attempts in the third quarter again, that doesn’t fully explain the 32-point deficit. Snyder acknowledged that the series had challenges beyond their control. What he failed to address was the fact that the Celtics are equipped to create open looks on one end against Atlanta and block them on the other.
That reality leaves the Hawks no room for error if Wilkins ever wants to rebuff Maxwell. As Collins said, “Winning a game, especially on the road, requires a full game of playing with everything we’ve got.”
The Hawks would last just over 11 seconds before snapping their souls in Game 2 (7 p.m. ET Tuesday, NBA TV).