Celtics center Jared Sullinger (7) goes up for a rebound against Atlanta Hawks center Al Horford (15) during the first half in game one of the first round of the NBA Playoffs at Philips Arena. (John David Mercer/USA Today Sports)
The Celtics lost a playoff game and their best defensive player down the stretch of a rough Game 1 in Atlanta.
Al Horford led three Hawks with at least 20 points, scoring 24 while grabbing 12 rebounds as Atlanta grabbed Game 1, 102-101, Saturday night at Philips Arena.
Avery Bradley left the game midway through the fourth quarter grabbing his right leg in pain with a strained right hamstring. He did not return. His status for Game 2 Tuesday night is unknown.
Isaiah Thomas led the Celtics with 27 points, as Boston erased an 18-point first half hole to take a fourth quarter lead. But the Celtics faded after Bradley went down and fell down, 1-0, in the best-of-7 Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.
Jae Crowder hit a three with 6.6 seconds left to bring Boston to within two, 100-98. But Jeff Teague hit two free throws with 5.2 seconds left to seal the win. Thomas hit a three with 0.4 left to make it 102-101.
The Hawks came out on fire in the opening quarter, racing out to a 20-10 lead. The Celtics were settling for jump shots and the Hawks were taking advantage in transition, getting open looks at threes and midrange jumpers.
With the Celtics concerned about how to contain Atlanta bigs Paul Millsap and Al Horford, the biggest factor in the opening quarter was the foul trouble the Celtics’ big men faced. Both Amir Johnson and Jared Sullinger picked up two fouls apiece.
The Hawks finished the first quarter on a 7-2 run to take a 30-19 lead.
The Hawks built their lead up to 14, 39-25 before Marcus Smart drilled a three from the left wing with just under seven minutes left in the second quarter.
The Celtics made just 11 of their first 49 shots from the floor, falling behind 48-30 with just under two minutes left in the first half. Atlanta finished the second quarter on an 18-9 spurt to take a 51-34 lead at the half. The Celtics shot an abysmal 23.1 percent, connecting on just 12-of-51 shots in the first 24 minutes, including 2-for-16 from beyond the arc.
Adding to the misery of the first half was an injury to the left index finger of Smart. He was replaced by R.J. Hunter with five minutes left in the second quarter. Smart returned midway through the third quarter.
Almost predictably, the Celtics went on an 11-2 run early in the third quarter to cut Atlanta’s lead to nine, 54-45. Brad Stevens made a change in the starting lineup to open the second half, replacing Amir Johnson with Evan Turner.
The Celtics were trading baskets for the next five minutes before the Celtics got a three from Isaiah Thomas with 5:47 left in the third, cutting Atlanta’s lead to six, 62-56.
Bradley’s layup with 4:57 left cut the lead down to five, 63-58 before Mike Scott drilled a three to put the lead back to eight, 66-58. Millsap then drove past Kelly Olynyk for a layup and a foul. The three-point play with 4:05 left in the third put the lead back to 11, 69-58.
The Celtics’ frustration with a lack of calls going their way finally led to a technical on Brad Stevens with 2:52 left in the third quarter. It was Stevens’ first technical of the season and just his second with the Celtics in three seasons. With 46 seconds left in the quarter, Bradley hit a three that cut the lead back to five, 70-65. The Celtics finished the third quarter with 11 fast break points and 18 points in the paint, cutting Atlanta’s lead to 72-65 heading into the fourth.
The Celtics used the 3-point play, conventional and beyond the arc, to continue their second-half surge. Bradley hit a mid-range jumper and Marcus Smart was fouled. Smart’s free throw made it a one-possession game at 80-77. With 7:49 left, Smart drilled a three to tie it and then Crowder connected from the left wing with 6:49 left to give Boston an 83-80 lead and cap a 9-0 Celtics run.
But on the next possession, the entire tone of the game changed when Avery Bradley pulled up lame with a right hamstring strain. He had to be helped off the court by trainer Ed Lacerte and teammate Tyler Zeller. He was almost immediately ruled out of the game by the team.
Thomas drilled a three with 5:53 left to give the Celtics an 86-84 lead. It would be Boston’s last field goal until a Marcus Smart putback layup with 1:02 left, a drought of four minutes, 51 seconds.
The Hawks went to work. With 4:07 left, Teague converted a layup putting the Hawks up, 88-86. With 3:25 left, Horford’s layup on a pass from Teague made it 90-88 Hawks. Turner’s three to tie the game with 46 seconds left was off the mark. Isaiah Thomas missed a layup and Bazemore hit one of two free throws to make it, 99-93 with 25.7 seconds left.
Game 2 is set for Tuesday night in Atlanta before the series shifts back to Boston for Game 3 next Friday night at TD Garden.
For a compete box score, click here. To go beyond the box, read on.
STUD OF THE NIGHT: Avery Bradley
Until his injury, the Celtics’ best ball defender, picked up his offense and led the Celtics’ charge in the second half as the Hawks paid close attention to Isaiah Thomas. Runner-up: Marcus Smart. His 3-for-5 shooting from 3-point range, including clutch shots in the fourth, gave the Celtics a chance.
DUD OF THE NIGHT: Jared Sullinger
Early foul trouble took him out of his rhythm and he was rendered much less effective the whole night on both ends of the floor. He was not on the floor in the final three minutes with five fouls. He was also just 4-for-14 from the line.
VIDEO OF THE NIGHT: