Kirk Hinrich dribbled toward the elbow but could not shake Avery Bradley. Hinrich crossed over to his left and almost turned the ball over. He then crossed back over to his right and fired a 24-foot rainbow 3-pointer against some more tough defense from the Celtics' lockdown two-guard.
Hinrich's contested shot plopped through the net, and the Celtics' head-shaking 83-74 loss had its defining moment. Anything the Celtics could do wrong offensively or defensively, they did, even watching their indispensable point guard get dispensed of late in the fourth quarter for arguing a foul and bumping a referee.
This one was ugly, but it was precisely the type of game many observers felt the Celtics could lose in this series. Boston is considered the better team with more experience, a more imaginative system and a well-defined pecking order within its ranks. But every prediction that had the Celtics winning — and those were the majority — included the caveat that if either Josh Smith or Joe Johnson simply took control of a game and at least one other Hawk got hot, all of the Celtics' supposed advantages could be canceled out.
In that spirit, Smith had a double-double by halftime en route to 22 points and 18 rebounds, and Jeff Teague and Hinrich alternated back-breaking baskets for four quarters. Energized by their offense, the Hawks used their athleticism to its full capability on defense, pushing the Celtics farther and farther from the hoop and challenging every shot, leading to Boston's 0-for-11 mark from beyond the arc.
"I even missed a layup wide-open at the end of the game," Paul Pierce told reporters with a frustrated laugh. "That was just an indication of the kind of night I had."
The loss was troubling but hardly disturbing. The Celtics remain the best defensive team in the NBA, even if they did not play like it in Game 1, and that trait should give them an advantage over the course of the series. Kevin Garnett played one strong half and one awful half, and Pierce never developed any rhythm on offense, possibly because he was working so intently on holding Johnson to 11 points. This type of performance is not a new development for this group. These guys lost to the Raptors twice, after all.
Likely losing Rajon Rondo for at least Game 2 will be a hindrance, and Brandon Bass has shown no signs of solving Smith's defense all season. Still, as far as across-the-board breakdowns go, this was hardly shocking. All the predictable signs of a hypothetical Hawks victory were there, and the Celtics were still the favorite pick to win the series for the very reason that such performances by the Hawks would presumably be hard to replicate.
It is hard to imagine the Hawks playing as well again as they did Sunday, so, until further notice, we can assume they won't.
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