His first two charges at the basket hadn't generated a quality look and now, with the shot clock running low in a one-possession game with less than five minutes to play, Boston Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas dribbled into the paint and threw up one of his familiar rainbow floaters as a trio of Atlanta Hawks defenders raced at him.
Thomas has hit that same shot so many times this season that it was almost jarring to watch the high-arcing lob barely scrape the side of the rim. Thomas missed his final seven shots on Saturday night and his finishing woes not-so-surprisingly coincided with Boston's offensive plunge. After scoring 87 points over the first 30:30 of Saturday's game, Boston scored just 20 points over the final 17:30 while enduring a 118-107 defeat at the hands of the Hawks at Philips Arena.
With the win, the Hawks (48-32) have put themselves in prime position to secure the No. 3 seed in the East, not only leading Boston (47-33) by a game, but also owning the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Celtics. Boston can still emerge with the No. 4 seed and home-court advantage if it wins its final two games against the other two members of this Eastern Conference traffic jam in the Charlotte Hornets (Monday) and Miami Heat (Wednesday).
Thomas, a first-time All-Star this season who was one of the league's most dominant players in March, finished 6-of-19 shooting and missed 10 his 14 attempts at the rim. He committed a team-high four turnovers and was a team-worst minus-16 in plus/minus. Even Thomas lamented his uncharacteristic turnovers and scoring struggles after Saturday's loss.
Alas, he was hardly alone. After a monster first half that included four 3-pointers, Marcus Smart went 2-for-5 shooting for five points in the second half. Avery Bradley missed 11 of the 17 shots he took overall. Boston connected on just 1 of 11 3-pointers in the second half. What's more, Paul Millsap scored 31 points on 13-of-22 shooting while connecting on 5 of 7 3-pointers (three of which came in the second half) and adding 16 rebounds and five blocks in a monster effort for the Hawks.
The quest for home-court advantage got a little trickier for Boston with the loss, but two wins at TD Garden would ensure the fourth seed. The Celtics wouldn't mind if Charlotte or Miami stumbled elsewhere at the finish line to make things a little easier.
After all, nothing came easy over the final 17:30 of Saturday's game. Boston was 8-of-28 shooting (28.6 percent) during that span, while the Hawks shot 50 percent. The way Atlanta was able to respond after Boston built a double-digit, third-quarter lead was a reminder of just how important home-court advantage can be in a big game.
Maybe the toughest part of having to fight for the fourth seed is that it means playoff-like intensity through the final week of the season for Boston. The Celtics looked a bit fatigued by the end of Saturday's game, even after limiting minutes for key players during Friday's win over the Milwaukee Bucks.
What's lost by not obtaining the No. 3 seed? While the Celtics certainly can't look past the opening round of the playoffs, the third seed would have meant potentially avoiding the top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers in the conference semifinals. Now, if Boston survives Round 1, it's likely ticketed for a matchup against a Cavaliers team that swept the Celtics out of the playoffs last year.
Celtics coach Brad Stevens has downplayed seedings chatter. He wants his team to simply be playing quality basketball when the playoffs arrive. Stevens won't let his players look past the next possession, let alone dream ahead to the conference semis.
The better news for Boston on this night? The Phoenix Suns won their second game in a row, this time a 21-point thrashing of the New Orleans Pelicans. Those two wins have vaulted the Suns (22-58) ahead of the Brooklyn Nets (21-58), who will deliver their unprotected first-round pick to the Celtics in June.
If the Nets do not win another game and finish with the third-worst record in basketball, Boston will have a 15.6 percent chance at the top overall pick (and a 46.9 percent chance at a top-3 selection). Earlier this week, it seemed unlikely that the Nets would dip lower than the fourth-worst record, but the Suns just keep helping Boston (remember last year they traded Isaiah Thomas to the Celtics at the trade deadline).
Boston still has goals to accomplish before those ping pong balls dance on May 17. Its path to postseason success got a little more daunting with Saturday's loss. But the Celtics can't dwell on it. Essentially, the playoffs have already begun for Boston.