Saturday night, the Atlanta Hawks prevailed over the Boston Celtics in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference first round, 102-101. The Hawks stormed the Celtics in the first half, but the game became a nail-biter thanks to a valiant effort by Boston’s Isaiah Thomas, Evan Turner and Avery Bradley.
The trio of guards helped the Celtics outscore the Hawks in the second half, 67-51. Thomas and Turner boosted Boston’s offense in that highly productive half, while Bradley did a tremendous job on defense, slowing down Atlanta point guards Jeff Teague and Denis Schroder, until he suffered a hamstring injury in the fourth quarter.
Bradley’s injury occurred just after forward Jae Crowder knocked down a three-pointer to give the Celtics an 83-80 lead. That lead did not last long once Bradley went out: Teague started to assert himself against the smaller Thomas down the stretch.
The Celtics are all too aware that before Bradley left the game, he was one of the central engines of the team’s comeback, joined principally by Thomas and Turner. The three men ripped off 11 straight points, and did so in various ways (layups, free throws, and three-pointers). They put a lot of pressure on the Hawks’ guards to defend the perimeter. This spaced the floor and began opening up opportunities for the other Celtics on the floor.
When Bradley got injured in Game 1, Thomas and Turner tried to pick up the slack. Thomas finished with 27 points on 8-of-21 shooting from the field and knocked down timely baskets. With 5:53 to go in the game, he made a three-pointer to give the Celtics an 86-84 lead. In the second half alone, Thomas shot 6-of-13 from the field and 4-of-7 from three-point range.
Turner was only 3-of-9 in the second half, and while he helped power the Celtics’ rally, he was entrusted with important shots in crunch time after the Bradley injury. He couldn’t hit enough shots to lift Boston over the hump.
This leads us to Game 2, and Boston’s new — but unwelcome — situation.
Without Bradley, Boston will need Thomas and Turner to be more efficient. More precisely, Brad Stevens will need Thomas and Turner to guide the Celtics through the first half. Boston has been outscored, 113-72, in its last two first halves. Moreover, the Celtics have endured at least one quarter in each of their last three first halves (going back to last Monday’s game against Charlotte) in which they’ve scored fewer than 20 points while giving up at least 30.
Thomas and Turner carry a big burden with Bradley off the floor. The Celtics lose so much on defense with Bradley out, so they’ll need to be relentlessly efficient on offense — in two halves, not just one.
In Game 1, Thomas scored only six points in the first half on 2-of-8 shooting from the field. Turner was not better, as he produced only two points on 1-of-4 shooting. They cannot duplicate this type of first half performance in tonight’s game or it will be a repeat of Saturday night, when Atlanta held a 51-34 lead at the half.
This season, Thomas has been a consistent shooter throughout all four quarters, hitting over 40 percent of his attempts. Turner has shown he can be a productive first-half player. He shoots 45.7 and 46.8 percent in the first two quarters of games. If both players start the game by demonstrating better shot selection, which chiefly means Thomas not taking 10 three-pointers and instead getting to the rim, the Celtics have a chance
One other aspect of Game 2 in which Thomas and Turner can be influential is to become more prominent facilitators. In Game 1, Thomas and Turner had three assists apiece in the first half. As an entire team, the Celtics had only nine assists in the first half. When Boston played better in the second half, Thomas had five assists and Turner had two. Part of these altered assist totals was the ability of the Celtics to not only make shots, but run the floor and beat Atlanta’s defense before it could set up.
All of these factors will play a part in Game 2, just as they did in Game 1. The only difference is that Boston will be without Bradley for the rest of the series. If Turner and Thomas can increase their levels of efficiency — getting to the foul line and pushing the pace — the task won’t be as overwhelming for their teammates. If Marcus Smart (15 points in Game 1) can find a few more three-point makes, and if Jae Crowder can play through his ankle injury (he hasn’t been the same player since his return to the lineup), the Celtics will tie up the series heading back to TD Garden.
Yet, while Game 2 will require the role players to do their fair share, this is most centrally a game in which Isaiah Thomas, one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2016 season, has to bring his All-Star-level form to the court. Evan Turner, who has found a career rebirth under Brad Stevens, needs to exhibit his best form as well.
This is what’s required in a world without Avery Bradley on the floor.
The Boston Celtics must carry a greater burden. We’ll see if they’re ready to do the heavy lifting needed to win Game 2.