The Boston Celtics and Atlanta Hawks entered Saturday night with identical 47-32 records, and they played like two teams battling for the Eastern Conference’s No. 3 playoff seed.
The Celtics and Hawks went back and forth all night in a high-scoring affair, but Atlanta threw the final punch, outscoring Boston by nine points in the fourth quarter to run away with a 118-107 win at Philips Arena.
Marcus Smart (19 points, five rebounds, three assists) led a balanced Celtics scoring effort, as Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder each scored 16 points, Avery Bradley chipped in 15 and Amir Johnson added 14 points and eight rebounds.
Paul Millsap was an absolute monster for Atlanta, posting 31 points, 16 rebounds and five blocks, while Jeff Teague added 24 points and seven assists.
The Hawks now are one game ahead of the No. 4 Celtics for the East’s third seed and can clinch that spot by beating the Cleveland Cavaliers and Washington Wizards in their final two games.
Thomas, Bradley, Crowder, Johnson, Jared Sullinger
The Celtics didn’t get off to the best start, as the Hawks used some careless Boston turnovers to get easy buckets and open an early advantage.
But the C’s snapped out of it, thanks partly to the efforts of Smart, who drilled a pair of 3-pointers to help Boston go in front late in the first quarter. Dennis Schroeder drilled a deep three at the buzzer to give Atlanta the lead after a high-scoring first quarter in which both teams shot over 50 percent from the field.
LETTING IT FLY
The second quarter featured more of the same from both squads: A whole lot of offense and not much defense.
The Celtics kept pace by lighting it up from deep, as five different players hit 3-pointers in the quarter. Smart buried two more deep balls to reach 14 points by halftime, as Boston knocked down seven threes in the quarter to hang 71 first-half points on Atlanta.
Yet the Hawks were nearly as hot, with Millsap drilling two of Atlanta’s five 3-pointers in the frame. The Hawks actually led by one point late in the quarter despite Boston’s shooting barrage, but a Thomas 3-pointer (what else?) helped the C’s take a slim lead into halftime.
DEFENSE TO OFFENSE
Crowder and the Celtics picked up the defensive intensity in the third quarter to jump out in front.
Up by just three points early in the second half, Boston ripped off a 14-5 run to expand that lead to 12. Crowder scored the final six points of that run off two Atlanta turnovers, the second of which he created all by himself.
Yet the Hawks were undeterred, storming right back by giving the Celtics a taste of their own medicine. Atlanta held Boston to two points over the last three-plus minutes of the third quarter, and Millsap banked in a 3-pointer and followed that with a layup to give the Hawks a two-point lead entering the fourth.
The Celtics couldn’t make the key shots they needed down the stretch as the Hawks pulled away for the win.
Boston recorded just two field goals over a five-minute span, as Millsap continued to pour it on during a 13-6 Atlanta run. Thomas and Bradley also both missed free throws during the Celtics’ fourth-quarter scoring drought.
The Celtics scored just 16 points on 33 percent shooting in the fourth quarter and went 1 of 5 from 3-point range. Atlanta hit shots when they counted, as Al Horford’s 3-pointer to put the Hawks up 10 with 1:10 remaining proved to be the dagger.
PLAY OF THE NIGHT
Thomas got some serious hangtime on this strong finish over 6-foot-8 Hawks forward Mike Scott in the second quarter.
The Celtics will close the regular season with crucial home games against the Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat. First up Monday are the Hornets, who have won five of their last seven and are in the thick of things as the East’s No. 6 seed. Tip-off at TD Garden is set for 7:30 p.m. ET.
Thumbnail photo via Jason Getz/USA TODAY Sports Images