‘Space’ Vanishes from C's Offense During Game 2

Marc D'Amico
Team Reporter and Analyst

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ATLANTA – “Pace and space” is a term that is closely associated with Boston’s up-tempo offense. The Celtics had plenty of the former during Game 2, but the latter was nonexistent.

Boston, playing for the first time this season without both of its leading 3-point threats in Avery Bradley and Kelly Olynyk, lacked spacing during an 89-72 defeat at the hands of the Hawks. Atlanta packed the paint and dared the Celtics to shoot from long distance, where they connected on just five of 28 attempts on the night.

“Avery Bradley and Kelly Olynyk, you can’t underestimate how important they are to them,” Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer said after the game. He later added, “We just wanted to be active. We wanted to be in passing lanes, be active on the pick-and-rolls, active on the boards, play transition D.”

They also wanted to pack the paint, as the Hawks’ defense, which was tops in the league after the All-Star break, has been known to do.

Atlanta’s game plan worked like a charm. The Celtics not only struggled to make their open 3s, but due to the clutter in the paint, they were also unable to find any form of success around the basket. Atlanta set a new franchise-playoff record by blocking 15 shots.

“They did a great job walling up,” Evan Turner said of the Hawks, who blocked three of his 12 shots.

Atlanta baited the Celtics into taking 3s, knowing full well that if they chose to drive to the basket, that wall Turner alluded to would be standing tall.

“When guys drive in there,” Kent Bazemore said, “we just kind of filter them right there to the bigs, and they clean it up.”

Al Horford accounted for five of Atlanta’s blocks, while Paul Millsap rejected four. Seven of the 10 Hawks who played more than 10 minutes blocked at least one shot.

Atlanta’s defense was dominant from the opening tip. The Celtics shot a woeful 3-for-23 from the field during the first quarter while scoring only seven points. That total marked the lowest-scoring quarter in franchise playoff history.

Boston, which has proven all season long to be as mentally tough as any team in the league, did manage to find a bit of success over the final quarters.

The C’s played to their game plan by forcing misses and turnovers and getting out in transition. They took 88 shots on the night, which fell just short of their league-leading average of 89.2 during the regular season. They matched the Hawks 65-65 over the final three quarters.

A second-quarter run brought Boston back to within 10 points but the team was never able to pull closer than that over the remainder of the night. Atlanta’s lead continued to hover in the teens while the Celtics continued to struggle both from long range and from inside the paint.

As Brad Stevens said of his team’s performance, “It never felt like we were at their level.”

The only bright spot from Boston’s offense was, surprisingly, Amir Johnson. He shot 6-for-11 on the night and scored 14 points. Johnson connected on six of his nine shots from inside the 3-point arc.

Johnson was one of the reasons why the Celtics were able to stay within striking distance throughout the game. However, he couldn’t space the floor, and that’s what the Celtics were missing during their comeback bid.

The Celtics face an uphill battle as this series shifts to Boston for Game 3. Bradley, a 36.1 percent shooter from long range during the regular season, has essentially been ruled out for the remainder. Olynyk, who made 40.5 percent of his 3-pointers during the regular season, appears to be a game-time decision, but it remains to be seen how effective his shot will be if he plays through pain in his injured shooting shoulder.

Boston will continue to play with pace regardless of whether or not Bradley and/or Olynyk are available. But in order to get over the hump in this series, they’ll also need to figure out how to play with some space at the offensive end of the court.