This night, better focus clearly seen
ATLANTA — What we learned last night is this season isn’t last season. The Celtics have a mean streak after losing streaks, and plan on taking the regular season seriously, evidenced by their performance against the Hawks.
The Hawks, meanwhile, are back to their confusing ways, playing well against the bad teams and not looking at all interested against the good ones.
Having lost all four games to the Hawks last season, the Celtics were geared for a challenge and ran out to a 26-point first-quarter lead en route to a 99-76 victory in a game that wasn’t that close. The Celtics are spending the early portion of the schedule trying to establish chemistry while also figuring out who will be the primary challengers in the Eastern Conference.
Right now Miami is a mess and the Celtics have topped the Heat twice, the second time with relative ease. And they were able to get a close look at Atlanta, fearing that the ultra-athletic Hawks, on two days’ rest, could lap the Celtics and send them home reeling.
But Atlanta showed little interest in playing last night and was dealt its fifth home loss in the past six games. If the Hawks are going to emerge as competitors to the Celtics’ Eastern Conference throne, they are going to have to make some dramatic changes, because they appear distracted.
Before the game, the Hawks talked about taking that next step, becoming a legitimate Eastern contender because they are one of the league’s more talented teams. But they lack concentration and passion, and a half-empty arena with a strong contingent of Celtics fans didn’t help provide any spark.
They shot 23.5 percent in the first quarter and collected three rebounds. The final three quarters was about gaining some self-respect, but the Celtics weren’t going to allow much more than that. There would be no rallies, and the Hawks were left to wonder how far they had fallen from the team that had dusted the Celtics four times last season.
“This was very embarrassing,’’ coach Larry Drew said. “If I had to sum it up in one word, embarrassing, to come out and play with that type of energy, that type of urgency. I addressed the team right after the game, and what I see with our team right now, I don’t feel real good about. I am disappointed that we are not playing with a hunger. We’re looking to point fingers. We’re playing the blame game.’’
If the most talented team always won, the Celtics would have had little trouble disposing of Toronto Sunday afternoon. But coaches can’t teach focus. Focus can only be taught in lesson form, meaning the Celtics were subjected to reflecting on a bitter 102-101 loss.
The Celtics admitted they struggle with focus in the regular season, especially against perceived lesser teams. They breathed a sigh of relief when the news was released that Kevin Durant would not play for Oklahoma City. Then they promptly were beaten because they dozed through the first three quarters.
On Sunday, they raced to a double-digit first-quarter lead, only to allow 38 points in the second, rally in the fourth, and then lose in a flurry of non-calls and missed opportunities.
This is the best they have played in a second game of a back-to-back in recent memory. There was energy, passion, and, most importantly, consistency. The Celtics never allowed the Hawks back into the game, relegating the second half to garbage time.
Of course, the Celtics veterans, always ones to chatter and joke on the sideline, could have spent the fourth quarter in celebration mode. But that was not a good look last night.
Instead, while Avery Bradley was making his NBA debut and Luke Harangody was trying to get in some much-needed playing time, the veterans were screaming approval. And during a fourth-quarter timeout, while Doc Rivers was meeting with his staff before huddling with the players, Kevin Garnett stepped toward the rookie duo and offered some advice. He wanted increased concentration.
Garnett didn’t want Bradley trying to showboat in front of mentor Jamal Crawford, or Harangody launching 3-pointers to impress fellow Notre Dame alum Jerome Bettis. So he challenged them to play hard and run the offense.
“For the most part, I wanted to make sure they were focused and locked in,’’ Garnett said. “The guys that worked and got the lead can sort of sit back and relax a little bit, but for you guys this is work and continue to keep the pressure on and get something out of this.’’
Rivers can give as many rah-rah speeches as he pleases, but he realizes that only the players can police their focus. And he is banking on more nights like last night.
“I gave that up my first year coaching,’’ Rivers said when asked whether he is finished trying to figure out the mental state of his players. “This group, that’s who they are. We’re going to have those [poor] nights. But I just thought the loss [Sunday] set the tone for us. You could feel it.’’
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.