BOSTON –- Friday night's Game 3 between the Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics had yet to begin and TD Garden already sounded a tad like it did in years past, when Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and even Antoine Walker wore the green and white and led Boston deep into the conference playoffs.
The place was loud and electric. It had the feeling of this potentially being Boston’s last stand. Players from both teams were scrapping and flying all over the floor. There were technical and flagrant fouls whistled. Isaiah Thomas made big shots -- and even appeared to take one at Dennis Schroder’s face -- during a career-high 42-point night while leading the Celtics to a season-saving 111-103 victory.
Kyle Korver had forewarned of this.
Days earlier in Atlanta -- after the Hawks had forged a 2-0 lead in this best-of-seven -- Korver delivered his forecast for Game 3. He saw the Hawks having to step into what sounded like a perfect storm.
“Boston has a lot of pride,” Korver said. “There is a lot of pride in the Celtics, in the logo, in the uniform, in the history. There’s like a power, a superpower in it, almost. I know their fans are going to be amazing. It is a great sports town. It is going to be rocking. They are going to try to give us their best shot.”
Try? The Celtics came out and punched the Hawks basketball-wise and literally got physical with Schroder. Boston finally got off to a good start, turning the tables on the Hawks with a 37-20 first-period explosion.
During the first two games of this series, Atlanta outscored the Celtics by a staggering total of 54-26 in the first quarters combined. Boston was just 10-for-49 shooting, including a nightmarish 1-for-15 from behind the 3-point arc in those two first quarters in Atlanta.
But here, in front of their home crowd, the Celtics made 12 of their first 21 shots. More important was that Thomas finally escaped the clutches of the Hawks' defense, scoring 16 points in the first quarter.
Boston coach Brad Stevens made his biggest adjustments yet, starting Evan Turner and Jonas Jerebko and having Marcus Smart and Turner handle the ball a bit more while letting Thomas play off the ball.
The result was Thomas adding his name to Celtics playoff lore.
But here’s the thing: The Hawks actually are probably feeling good about things. Even though the Celtics led 64-45 with 10:43 left in the third quarter, Atlanta erased that deficit before the quarter was over.
The Hawks took the Celtics’ best shot of this series so far and fought back. The fourth quarter was thrilling, with the teams trading 3-pointers and difficult shots in traffic. The game was tied three times in the fourth, but Thomas proved to be too good on this night.
He scored 11 of his points in the fourth, including burying a 25-foot bomb right in front of Jeff Teague with 1:53 left to push Boston up seven.
“Allen Iverson just said keep fighting,” Thomas said of a text exchange he had with the former Sixers great. “They did what they were supposed to do in Atlanta.”
And now Boston has done what it was supposed to do by holding court in its first home game of the series. The Celtics blew a 19-point lead in less than a quarter. (The Hawks blew as big a lead in Game 1.) But Boston needed the biggest night of Thomas’ career to pull this one out. Thomas had to make some sensational shots.
“Optimistic,” Hawks swingman Kent Bazemore said when asked how the team felt in the locker room after Friday's loss. “It was going to be tough to sweep this team anyway. Being down 2-0 and them having a home game, we knew they were going to put up a fight. We know that we’ve got to do a lot better; our defense wasn’t where it should have been for a chunk of a game."
“We played as well as we could have, I thought,” Bazemore added. “But paying attention to detail, some things we did in the first two games, we didn’t do tonight. The fact that we gave ourselves a chance, there aren’t moral victories at this time of the year, but it’s the fact that we erased that 19-point deficit, actually went up and had a good chance to win the game.”
And that is why the Hawks should feel confident going into Game 4. Make no mistake, the Celtics have made this a series again. But the Hawks know that when they play the kind of defense they are capable of, when they open with the type of urgency they had in Atlanta and move the ball and attack Boston, they can steal one here and put themselves in position to clinch the series at home.
Korver, who caught fire and made three treys in the first four-plus minutes of the fourth quarter before getting in foul trouble, knows Boston and its hard-core fans will be even more fired up on Sunday night with the chance to tie the series up.
But the Hawks didn’t wilt on Friday night until Thomas put the finishing touches on a career night.
“We felt confident during the game that we were going to come back and win,” Korver said. “There is a lot of pride in Boston, in the Celtic jersey, in the tradition here. We knew they would have an amazing crowd and would try to feed off that, and they did.
But, Korver added, “We still had our chances.”