ATLANTA -- Boston Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas tried everything. He got the team to switch its jerseys before Tuesday's Game 2 against the Atlanta Hawks. He changed his sneakers at halftime. He even went a brief stretch in the third quarter without his trademark headband.
No matter what Thomas did, his shot defied him. And the fact that Boston was trying to dig itself out of a 23-point first-quarter deficit -- the result of another unforgivable slow start -- only made each miss that much more noticeable.
Thomas misfired on five of his first six shots as Boston posted just seven first-quarter points on Tuesday night. It didn't matter that the Celtics played the Hawks even after that point. Thomas never quite got himself going, eliminating the chance for Boston to make a sustained run, and the Celtics endured an 89-72 loss at Philips Arena.
Atlanta leads the best-of-seven series 2-0 as it shifts to Boston.
Thomas finished with 16 points on 4-of-15 shooting in Game 2. His basic stat line for the series is respectable, with Thomas averaging 21.5 points, five assists, three rebounds and one block over 33.5 minutes per game. But he's shooting 33 percent overall (12-of-36) and 31.3 percent from beyond the 3-point arc (5-of-16), and he is minus-15 in plus/minus overall.
"There’s always two guys on me, at least, when I don’t have the ball. They’re looking in my eyes, they’re face-guarding me," Thomas said. "The best players figure it out. That’s just a sign of respect from [the Hawks], and I just gotta figure it out. Lock in and -- man, I’m missing easy layups that I usually make. I’m getting midrange shots that I usually knock down."
The Celtics, who played Game 2 without Thomas' backcourt partner Avery Bradley (hamstring) and sweet-shooting big man Kelly Olynyk (shoulder), really need Thomas' offense, particularly when Atlanta's defense is locked in and the Hawks are making early runs.
Boston was already staring at an 11-2 deficit before Thomas took his first shot nearly three minutes into Tuesday's game. He clanged a 3-point attempt off the front rim hoping to break Atlanta's momentum.
A strong drive got him to the free throw line the next trip down, but even then he missed one of his free throws. Soon after, Thomas missed a step-back jumper near the free throw line. The Celtics were down 24-3 before he made his first bucket -- a pull-up jumper coming off a screen with 4:07 to play in the first quarter.
It was an infuriating half for Thomas. One 3-point attempt was deflected by Thabo Sefolosha. Shortly after, the ball swung his way for a more open look beyond the arc, and Thomas held his left hand high after releasing the shot. Alas, it slammed off the rim, and he looked a bit incredulous. When he raced free to the corner midway through the second quarter for another clean 3-point attempt, he again held his pose after release, but the ball bounced off the rim again.
Thomas struggled at times last season while making his playoff debut with Boston. The Cavaliers did a lot of the same things the Hawks are doing now: They paid him a lot of attention, loaded up the paint to deter his drives and dared him to consistently knock down perimeter shots.
Thomas averaged 17.5 points on 33 percent shooting during Boston's four-game sweep at the hands of Cleveland. In six playoff games with the Celtics, Thomas is now a combined 30-of-90 overall.
Thomas didn't just elevate to All-Star status this season, he muscled his way into some All-NBA chatter with his offensive exploits. The Celtics needed everything the 5-foot-9 guard produced, and the team's offense was 7.7 points per 100 possessions better when Thomas was on the floor this season.
Thomas entered the playoffs with lofty standards and suggested he was locked in. He was confident that Atlanta wouldn't be able to slow him down the way the Cavaliers did. But as the Celtics struggle as a team, offensively, particularly at the start of games, Thomas hasn't been able to rescue Boston.
Thomas was calm and confident in the visitors' locker room after Tuesday's Game 2 loss. After suggesting that great players fight through their struggles, he was asked how he could get through his own woes.
"Stay the course," Thomas said. "It’ll all come together. I’m just going to continue to stay in the gym, continue to watch film, figure out where I can get things even easier. Then, like I said, lock in and knock down my open shots.
"It’s bigger than what it is when we’re down 19-3: Like when we miss a layup, it feels like the world is going to end, or if you miss an open shot, it’s bigger than [a typical miss]."
Thomas is hardly the only player on Boston's roster struggling. Teammate Jae Crowder, hindered by the lingering effects of a high ankle sprain in March, has made just six of 25 field goal attempts (24 percent). The Celtics as a whole are shooting 34.2 percent from the field and 25.4 percent beyond the 3-point arc.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens said that players such as Thomas are holding themselves to a high standard, and he stressed that their individual struggles are not from a lack of focus or effort. Boston's slow starts have simply left players tight and not playing with their usual confidence.
Thomas settled for jumpers for much of Game 2 and missed seven of the nine shots he took from midrange or deeper. Getting to the line helped generate points, but Thomas missed four of his five attempts near the rim.
There are going to be those who question Thomas' ability to carry this team. The overreacting talking heads back in Boston will single out his struggles. But Thomas doesn't want his teammates to get discouraged. And he was optimistic about both his own ability to turn things around and his team's chances as the series heads to TD Garden.
"I’m always going to continue to be confident," Thomas said. "But I gotta make sure my team knows to continue to have confidence in themselves, because we need each other."