In a battle for playoff positioning with both Atlanta (9th) and Boston (10th) sitting just outside playoff positioning in the East, the Hawks prevailed 109-101 with a strong fourth.
Paul Millsap’s 14 in the frame led a 38-28 charge that handed Boston their third straight loss. It was only fitting he sent Jae Crowder packing with his sixth foul, as the Celtics’ season-high 21 turnovers came back to haunt them in a losing effort.
It was sloppy offense both ways out of the gate. Pace and space led the way, with big men hitting the bucket hard off stops. Isaiah Thomas set the tone, hitting two three-pointers as Boston jumped ahead 12-6.
The big difference early on, as with both of the earlier games, was the outside shot. C's were 2-2 from three-point land in the first six minutes while Atlanta still hadn’t hit one (0-4).
Meanwhile Crowder, celebrating his anniversary of being traded here, scored four points with a pair of rebounds to go with strong minutes defensively from Kelly Olynyk.
R.J. Hunter made his return, leading to James Young’s return to the bench, as Atlanta cut Boston's lead down to 18-16 following three straight C’s turnovers.
Those ended up being a recipe for disaster, but luckily for them the Hawks still couldn’t steal a three-pointer (0-7) even with a few open looks handed to them by Boston's scrambling defense.
Olynyk hit a big three of his own and David Lee answered back to Atlanta's final bucket of the frame as Boston led 25-19 after one quarter. It was a great shooting frame for the C's (11-19, 3-4 outside).
Into the second, Lee’s offensive contributions were proving important. With three buckets for six points after a nice driving floater to make it 27-23. He then set up a rare Evan Turner three-pointer, who had missed 18 of his last 19 before that.
Hawks were moving the ball decisively and Celtics were tossing the it all over the place, but Boston was hitting their shots (13-25) and Atlanta wasn’t (10-27) towards the end of the second.
Then came the most Turner play ever, with the ball flying away from him as Kyle Korver tipped his dribble move. Turner grabbed it back, reaching outwards, and turned around to hit a floater.
Thabo Sefelosha buried Atlanta’s first three, 18 minutes into the game, then Hunter stayed strong to the basket and finished over the big man for his first bucket.
Thomas, meanwhile, brought in a streak of 34 straight free throws made which was broken up as Celtics went up 38-29 with 3:49 left in the half.
Dennis Schroder and Thiago Splitter kept the Hawks' effort going to push it inside. The first taking an Avery Bradley turnover all the way to cut Boston's lead down to 39-35. It was the C's 11th turnover.
Boston led at the half 43-42 with Atlanta perfectly executing the final possession. Schroder drove off the Al Horford screen then nailed him for the dunk.
The third would be a monster one for the birthday boy, Crowder, who was playing on the one year anniversary of the Rajon Rondo trade that brought him here from Dallas.
Hawks were riding an 18-6 run when he finally put back a Bradley lay-up to get the C's their first bucket of the third.
Beautiful passing was driving Atlanta, with an unselfish pursuit to find the right guys at the right moments. Horford got the point-blank dish at the basket after a missed three and Crowder finished on the other end. Back and forth it went midway through the frame.
Crowder was just getting started though, with a three pointer to keep the pace going despite a shaky defensive showing as a team.
The rebounding line of Crowder, Lee, and Sullinger continued to roll. With the latter two tipping the ball to keep it alive and Sully putting Boston up three at the line.
Crowder then buried a big time three to put C's up 70-66, before his three-point play pushed him up to 15 points in the quarter.
Schroder hit the rim again off a stop, missed, then Kent Bazemore was right there behind him to tip it in to cut the Boston lead to 73-71 after three quarters.
The Celtics couldn’t escape their turnover issues in the fourth and would meet their demise on them.
Giving away their 18th to start the quarter, Olynyk went the other way and received a great ally-oop ahead of the defense by Turner.
Hunter hit the biggest three of his career and his first since before the injury to push the Celtics ahead 82-77 with 8:47 to go. Then he buried another before getting a steal on the other end as Bazemore drew a tech in frustration.
Then the meltdown began.
Olynyk traveled then ran into Millsap on his way to the basket for an offensive foul before walking out of bounds on a ball that would’ve been Boston’s anyway. It brought the C’s to an absurd 20 turnovers and opened the door for another Atlanta three to make it a two point game.
Turner struck a mid-ranger to give the C’s a four point cushion, before Millsap went full closing-time drilling an and-one over Crowder's best defense to tie it.
Schroder hit a big bucket in transition off Boston’s 21st and final turnover to put the game in Atlanta’s hands. Thomas drilled more big free throws to tie it, then Millsap went right at Sullinger towards the rim to put Atlanta up three finishing the and-one this time.
Millsap’s amazing play led an 11-2 run, scoring 7 straight points before Crowder did his best to save the game with another three. He had a career high 24 points with 2:00 to go.
Bazemore then finished at the rim and Hawks broke out for four straight afterwards, before a Horford three put the nail in the coffin.
Crowder’s sensational effort fittingly came to an end as he fought for a rebound and was overpowered by Millsap, picking up his sixth foul.
Crowder ended with 24 points and 10 rebounds as Millsap made it 105-98 at the line. The C's fell 109-101 and lost their third straight game.
Follow Bobby Manning on Twitter @RealBobManning
Photo Credit: Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images Bobby Manning 12/18/2015 10:15:00 PM Tweet Edit