BOSTON — Notwithstanding that Isaiah Thomas suddenly felt a need to morph into a Munchkinland version of Charles Oakley – yet somehow will escape suspension from the NBA’s selective disciplinarians – the Hawks understand this isn’t the time to respond with roundhouse kicks and three-punch combinations.
“The games are physical but they’re not personal,” Paul Millsap said. “It hurts you to come to a game with revenge on your mind. If you’re thinking about revenge, you’re not thinking about basketball.”
The Hawks are a better basketball team than the Boston Celtics. It may not have looked like it in Friday’s 111-103 loss, when their playoff series lead was trimmed to 2-1, but they’re the deeper and more talented team, especially with Boston missing starting guard Avery Bradley and reserve center Kelly Olynyk.
Even with the Celtics rolling to a 37-point first quarter on forehead-slapping 57-percent shooting, getting a career-high 42 points from Thomas and the Hawks seemingly firing up open jumpers and layups with duct-taped hands, the Hawks came from a 19-point second-half deficit and nearly won.
The issue going into the series-tipping Game 4 Sunday at TD Garden is whether they get caught up in the emotional aftermath of Friday’s loss, when Thomas delivered an unprovoked slap to the side of Schroeder’s head at midcourt — or take the preferred path toward cool, robotic basketball that always works in San Antonio (the Hawks’ spirit guides).
Make no mistake: Thomas’s act was suspension-worthy. The Hawks believe that, even if the threat of fines generally muted on-the-record comments. Before the playoffs, coach Mike Budenholzer followed a league directive and read his players a long memo that, he said, basically amounted to, “Play fair. Play clean.”
Thomas’s hit was a clear violation of that, even if NBA officials suddenly appear tone deaf to its own mandates.
Schroder had cooled down by Saturday, after venting following the game and on his Twitter account (though he deleted the Tweet soon after.) But he didn’t quite say nothing: “I still feel disrespected. … I mean, we talked before, with the referees before the playoffs, and what they told us is what he did yesterday to me is a suspension.”
But Schroder and the Hawks say they are moving on. That’s wise. Because if this team suddenly feels like channeling the Detroit Pistons circa 1989, it’s going to be in trouble. (That said, it probably wouldn’t hurt their cause if physical center Kris Humphries, a DNP for three straight games, was freed from his shackles Sunday.)
Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer spent some time calming Schroder down following his brief scuffle with Thomas, which came minutes after the Celtic’s head slap, but is careful not to mute him too much.
“He and I kind of walk this fine line, or a little bit of a dance,” Budenholzer said. “There’s a way to compete and keep your focus. There’s a way we’d like our team to handle itself and be ultra competitive but ultra classy and professional. Dennis, as a young player, is learning that balance.”
That balance will be key for all of the Hawks. It’s more important for them to not faceplant out of the gate, be better defensively (particularly off screens) and find ways for Paul Millsap and Al Horford (eight points each in Game 3) to be more successful in the offense.
“The team that keeps their focus and mental discipline rather than getting under people’s skin is the one that has the most success,” he said. “As a group we’re still relatively young. Dennis is new to the playoffs. (Kent Bazemore) is relatively new. As a group we’ve been to the playoffs three years. Do I think we need to understand it and talk about and be on point? Yes.”
All that said, the Hawks missed five straight shots at the rim down the stretch. If they make those, they win. If they shoot better than 9-for-36 from three-point range, they win. If Isaiah Thomas doesn’t score more than double his career average, they win.
“We’ve just got to get back to the basics,” Jeff Teague said. “We had plays at the end that we normally execute and it didn’t happen. … I missed a ton of layups going down the stretch, Paul missed some easy ones. It’s part of the game.”
Emotions from Game 3 aside, this is still their series to win.
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