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Hawks' defense, experience too much for young Celtics

After leading by 28, Atlanta holds on to eliminate Boston 104-92 and advance to an Eastern semifinals meeting with Cleveland

POSTED: Apr 29, 2016 2:11 AM ET

By Ian Thomsen

BY Ian Thomsen

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— The older, bigger, deeper and altogether more versatile team won. But the reality was never so easy as it might have appeared to be on paper.

The Hawks earned themselves a 28-point lead in the fourth quarter of Game 6 on Thursday, and yet their starters were forced to play to the end. When the surging Celtics drew within 96-86 with 1:48 left, most of their customers were still in the TD Garden and chanting for a comeback in spite of the obvious.

"Our fans are amazing," said Isaiah Thomas, red-eyed and distraught after he (25 points while going 9-for-24) and his Celtics were held to another poor shooting night. "I wouldn't want to be anywhere else."

Atlanta held on for an impressive 104-92 win to survive the first-round series while re-establishing its identity. Now the Hawks have to hope that the ambitious young Celtics helped them achieve tip-top playoff shape. For the next round will return the Hawks to Cleveland, where they were swept anticlimactically one year ago in the conference finals. The Cavaliers are far healthier now than they were in that series, while Atlanta has struggled to regain the form of last season, when the Hawks earned the East's No. 1 seed.

"We just won Game 6 in Boston," said Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer. "So I don't have any thoughts about Cleveland. We may actually take a second to enjoy tonight. Our guys will be ready, I can guarantee you that."

Our fans are amazing. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else.

– Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas

Atlanta prevailed with defense and experience. The NBA's No. 2 defensive team held Boston to 38.4 percent shooting in the series and 34-for-94 in Game 6. The Hawks were focused mainly -- and for the most part successfully -- on 5-9 Isaiah Thomas. Boston's lone All-Star averaged 35 points (48.9 percent shooting) in the two Celtics wins, and 18.8 points (33.3 percent) in their losses.

Thomas was coming off the worst of his 112 games as a Celtic, having scored seven points (3-for-12) before suffering a sprained left ankle in Boston's discouraging Game 5 loss Tuesday at Atlanta. His up-and-down production was not so much the cause of Boston's problems as it was the symptom of a larger offensive issue, which he addressed by begging for more balanced scoring. "It should be a sign of disrespect to my teammates," he had said of the attention he earned from the Hawks. "Other guys have to step up and make plays, that's what it comes down to."

As soon as the season ended, Thomas was expressing adoration for those teammates. But the truth is they just were not ready to respond. The Celtics, as deep as they were, could not afford the absence of Avery Bradley and the diminished performances of Jae Crowder (ankle) and Kelly Olynyk (shoulder). There were three tight games in this series and Boston won two of them -- not bad for a young team that was not assembled with a long playoff run in mind. The point of this rebuilding season was to enhance the value of the Celtics' 29-and-under roster, and the accomplishment of that mission is going to enhance team president Danny Ainge's chances of pulling off a blockbuster (or several incremental deals) this summer.

"Man, you never know, I might be out of here," said Thomas, who wants badly to stay. "It's just the business of the game. We ain't got no Michael Jordans here. Anybody can be gone."

The Hawks pulled away with runs to start each of the final three periods. They began the second quarter by making six of their first eight from the field to pull out to a 34-21 lead. "They went to their motion offense the last two games," said Boston coach Brad Stevens. "Which gave us fits."

I think we're a better team than last year, I really do. Our identity is more on the defensive end this year.

– Hawks guard Kyle Korver

The anemic Celtics looked as if they had nothing left offensively, forcing Stevens to insert rookie R.J. Hunter in hope that he might give them five minutes of Robby Benson (this being an obscure but cogent reference to the 1977 basketball movie One on One). But Hunter went 0-for-2 to fit in with every Celtic apart from the indefatigable Jonas Jerebko, who had gone 4-for-7 for 11 points at the moment when Al Horford drilled a second straight jumper to push Atlanta's lead out to 55-36 less than four minutes into the third quarter.

"We learned with this team that no lead is safe," said Horford (15 points on 10 shots), who was among a half-dozen Hawks to score in double figures. "To start the third it was important for us to get off to a good start and just keep attacking."

When Thomas's drive was snuffed five minutes into the third -- leaving him 4-for-13 -- he raged at the referees, earning a technical foul that added slightly to his team's 18-point deficit. But there was nothing particularly new about Atlanta blocking 12 Boston shots in Game 6. The experienced Hawks rate No. 2 in defensive efficiency, and the small Celtics had been consistently overmatched in the paint while going 3-7 against Atlanta overall this season.

This really primes us for what's ahead. It teaches you how to stay the course. I think we grew up a lot in this series alone.

– Hawks forward Kent Bazemore

"I think we're a better team than last year, I really do," said Kyle Korver, who had 14 points (on four shots overall) Thursday while making 18 of 33 3-pointers over the final five games. "Our identity is more on the defensive end this year. We know our defense is going to have to be what it was in this series, if not better. And our offense is going to have to be better."

Marcus Smart -- a hero of the Celtics' Game 4 OT win -- broke their spell of lethargy nearing the end of the third when he finished a three-point drive to bring the Celtics within 15. But Dennis Schroder turned a pick-and-roll into an alley-oop lob to Horford, Mike Scott hit a corner 3 ("A huge shot," said Stevens), and then Jared Sullinger impulsively hip-checked Schroder into Thomas. And so it was 80-59 heading into the fourth, after Horford had swished a baseline turnaround at the buzzer.

"You can't go on a run unless you're getting stops. We were making it difficult on them, and then everybody was rebounding to get out and go," said Budenholzer, whose Hawks shot 51.4 percent after struggling to share the ball in the previous two games here. "It's good for our guys to come in and win a game on the road."

Was this the beginning of a trend? The Hawks were hoping so: They are going to need at least one win in Cleveland against the Cavaliers, who won all three meetings this season by a combined 29 points.

"This really primes us for what's ahead," said Kent Bazemore (15 points). "It teaches you how to stay the course. I think we grew up a lot in this series alone."

Ian Thomsen has covered the NBA since 2000. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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