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Hawks let Game 4 and series control slip away

BOSTON –- Jeff Teague sat slumped in his chair as he iced his knee, the salty look on his face saying all you needed to know about the state of the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday night.

In the middle of delivering terse answers shorter than Isaiah Thomas' stature, Teague sat in his chair as a few tense seconds passed between questions from reporters. One Hawk seated nearby briefly broke the tension by sarcastically blurting, “Awwwwkward.”

The same could be said about the Hawks’ situation at the moment. They came to Boston brimming with confidence up 2-0 in this best-of-seven series. They leave with the series completely up for grabs at 2-2 after undermanned but resilient Boston defended home court with true Celtics pride and pulled out Game 4, 104-95, in overtime.

But truth be told, the Hawks have every reason to believe that they let these two games slip away. They had a chance to steal Game 3 after erasing a 19-point lead in the third quarter, only to see some poor execution in the last few minutes and a career night from Thomas keep the Celtics alive. Then came Sunday night.

Paul Millsap did something no Hawk has done since Mr. Hawk himself, Dominique Wilkins, unforgettably poured 47 points in Game 7 at the old Boston Garden in the 1988 Eastern Conference semifinals. Millsap came into this game having scored a combined 12 points in the previous two games before turning in the night of his pro life with 45 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks.

“Millsap was awesome,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens later marveled.

So while Boston fans were fixated on booing Dennis Schroder -– who complained about Thomas hitting him in the face in Game 3 -- each time he touched the ball, Millsap was busy silencing the hostile crowd by burying floaters, 3-pointers, step-back shots and muscling a few shots in while being fouled.

The Hawks built a 16-point lead with 7:58 left in the third, but as has been the case throughout this series, no cushy third-quarter lead is safe. So when Boston erased the deficit and led by four with a minute left in regulation, Teague -- who was 1-of-11 from behind the arc at that point in the series -- buried back-to-back gutsy 3-pointers to give Atlanta a 92-90 lead with 20.2 seconds remaining.

Thomas quickly knifed through the Atlanta defense for a basket five seconds later, setting the Hawks up with the ball and the final shot with 15 seconds left.

Mike Budenholzer called Teague’s number over Millsap since Teague had the hot and clutch hand. The problem was the Hawks’ late-game execution.

With Bill Belichick and Rob Gronkowski among those in the crowd watching, Teague milked the clock too long -- down to less than three seconds -- before he even made a move. Not just that but he was also well behind the 3-point arc at that moment.

He waited for Kyle Korver to run over to set a fake screen that the Celtics didn’t bite on before making a move to his left with Thomas on him. With barely any time to try to create space, let alone make a move to take a shot, Teague lost the ball.

“To get a shot,” Teague said when asked what the thinking was waiting for the clock to tick down to three seconds or less. “It just slipped out of my hand.”

The Hawks pretty much let the game slip away as well. Overtime has been an Achilles heel for the Hawks, who fell to 0-6 in OT this season after Boston outscored them 12-3 in the extra period.

The Hawks, who live and die on their spread-the-ball, read-and-react mentality, were able to get Millsap only two shots in overtime -– not ideal considering Millsap's stat line. However, the Celtics had some success putting the smaller but physical Marcus Smart on Millsap, who also could have begun to tire as well.

Teague actually was the only Hawk to make an overtime field goal as Atlanta missed 10 of 11 shots.

“I think we just didn’t make our shots that we got and probably didn’t get the best quality shots,” Korver explained. “We’re just trying to force it to Paul, took us out of our flow [late]. It is something we talk about a lot. He had it going so well that you just want to give him the ball and say go to work but the reality is they were doubling him and lots of movement around there and we have to be more disciplined as a team.”

Now this series is what many expected it to be –- the most evenly matched pairing of the first round.

The Hawks and Celtics are nearly identical in several statistics. Through four games, the Hawks lead the Celtics in points 389-388 and rebounds by 192-189. Boston has made 38 3-pointers to the Hawks’ 37 so far.

But what about confidence and belief? Boston would seem to have a ton of that right now, while it would be understandable for the Hawks to have some doubt creep in after two tough consecutive losses.

“No,” Millsap countered. “We trust our group. We trust our team. Trust our coach, organization, trust ourselves. It is not going to get in our head. We feel comfortable with where we are at and where we are going and we are going to continue to press.”

This series began with the Hawks taking a 2-0 lead that felt commanding considering the Celtics lost Avery Bradley to injury. Now the Hawks return to Atlanta wondering if they’re the better team and capable of putting away these pesky Celtics.

“We wanted the last shot,” Teague lamented about what went wrong at the end of regulation.

Instead of having a shot to finish the Celtics off at home on Tuesday in Game 5, the Hawks now need to find a way to win in Atlanta or find themselves returning to a hostile Boston facing elimination.

Awwwwkward, indeed.