On Tuesday night, the Atlanta Hawks kept their season alive with a heartstopping 119-117 win in TD Garden, capped off by Trae Young’s game-winning three over the outstretched arms of Boston’s Jaylen Brown.
Young, operating without star shooting guard Dejounte Murray, who was suspended for the game, completely took this game over down the stretch, nailing three three-point shots in the final minutes and single-handedly reviving the Hawks’ season, which would have come to an underwhelming conclusion had Atlanta lost.
Instead, the Hawks extended this best-of-seven to a Game 6 on Thursday night back in front of what projects to be a raucous State Farm Arena crowd, and with Murray back in the starting lineup.
While Atlanta is certainly happy to play another day, this opportunity is only valuable if they make the most of it. With that being said, here are three things the Hawks can do on Thursday to push this series to an improbable Game 7 in Boston.
1. Feed off the crowd, but don’t rely on it
One thing is abundantly clear through five games of this series: the Boston Celtics are, all things considered, a better basketball team than the Atlanta Hawks. This being the case, it will be important that the Hawks wring every bit out of every advantage they can get, one of which will be a sea of fans cheering for them on Thursday night. Atlanta will look to use this crowd energy to get off to a good start, because, even though they proved in Game 5 that they can win coming from behind, it’s still not the most advisable strategy against the defending Eastern Conference Champions.
That being said, a home crowd will only get you so far, especially against a team as talented as Boston. If Atlanta doesn’t play smart, stay disciplined on defense, and take care of the basketball, no amount of home cooking will allow them to overcome the talent disparity they are working against in this series.
The crowd will create waves on Thursday night, and Atlanta should ride those waves as much as they can. That alone, however, will not be enough to push them across the finish line.
Another area where the Hawks have been a mixed bag in this series has been the glass. In last week’s Game 3 win, Atlanta crushed Boston in the rebounding department, but otherwise, the Celtics have largely controlled that aspect of the series.
A lot of the importance of this goes back to the fact that Boston has a good bit more firepower than Atlanta. The best way to overcome that is to minimize their shot attempts and maximize one’s own. The Hawks can do that if Clint Capela, John Collins, and others crash the glass on both ends of the court.
Not only are offensive rebounds for the opposition an opportunity for them to score more points, but they are also backbreaking morale-killers, especially when a team is playing from behind, as Atlanta has for the majority of this series.
It will be vital that all five players on the court box out and rebound the basketball if the Hawks want to make another trip to Boston.
3. Force turnovers
The Celtics, for all of the talent that they have, fold surprisingly easily under pressure. Perhaps there’s no better example of that than Game 5 when Atlanta’s late-game comeback was largely spurred by Boston suddenly turning into a team that looked like they’ve never played with each other before.
Fans may recall in last year’s Finals when the Golden State Warriors took full advantage of Boston’s inability to take care of the basketball, consistently forcing the Celtics’ weaker ball handlers (and they don’t have any exceptional ones) into double teams and getting their hands in passing lanes.
When the Hawks amped up the defensive pressure in the fourth quarter, the Celtics turned into willing accomplices in Atlanta’s comeback attempt by making a series of inexplicable errors that gave Atlanta an opportunity, one that Young took full advantage of.
This kind of aggressive defense is not foolproof, as the more often a team gambles for steals, the more gaps are created for the offense to exploit.
However, in all honestly, Atlanta has shown zero ability to guard Boston’s wing players even when they’re standing right in front of them, so they might as well pull out all the stops and try to expose the Celtics’ one true Achilles heel.