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The Hawks shut down Isaiah Thomas by pretending the rest of the Celtics didn't exist

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The Hawks devoted its entire defense to stopping the Celtics' All-Star because they know no other Celtics player can hit an outside shot.

Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Shooting has been a problem for the Celtics all season, even before Avery Bradley went down with a hamstring injury. Only two teams connected on fewer three-pointers than Boston this year, and that was with Bradley, a 36 percent shooter from deep, on the floor.

That's why losing him was such a devastating blow to the Celtics. It's not that Bradley is a once-in-a-generation shooter who can't be replaced. The issue is that he can't be replaced by anyone on Boston's roster. He's never been a knockdown shooter, but he's Boston's most proficient spot-up player and dangerous enough that opponents feel the need to respect him outside. Take him away from the Celtics, and you set off a chain reaction of consequences that make Boston, and especially Isaiah Thomas, easy to defend.

The Hawks knew this coming into Tuesday's Game 2 and executed their game plan to perfection. All night, their defensive scheme revolved around keeping multiple defenders near Isaiah Thomas to ensure the Celtics' dynamo wouldn't be the player to beat them. For Boston to even the series, someone else was going to have to catch fire from the outside. Atlanta's bet was that the Celtics had no one who could do so.

That turned out to be a wise wager.

Thomas was held to 16 points of 4-of-15 shooting. He misfired on nine of his first 10 attempts as the Celtics scored just seven first quarter points, the lowest total by any team in the first quarter of a playoff game since the shot clock was instituted in 1954. In total, the Celtics shot just 32 percent from the field in what turned out to be an embarrassing 89-72 Game 2 road loss.

Atlanta's plan was evident from early on in the first quarter. There were always multiple Hawks eyes on Thomas, whether he was pushing the ball off an Atlanta miss or receiving it at the top of key after zipping around multiple off-ball picks -- a tactic that Celtics head coach Brad Stevens hoped would help shift the defense's focus.

But the Hawks finished the season with the NBA's second-best defense rating (98.6) for a reason. They're big, fast, physical and fundamentally sound. It sounds a bit corny, but sometimes executing defensively is as simple as having cohesion on the floor. Thomas was never given room to operate or a lane to the rim. It didn't matter who was spotting up on his wing.

Some decision were easy for the Hawks, such as leaving Marcus Smart open from deep. Smart shot just 22 percent on catch-and-shoot three-pointers this season, per NBA.com, and was even less efficient on Tuesday.

But Budenholzer didn't stop there. Even a competent scorer like Jae Crowder was permitted to fire away from the get go.

Crowder is a dangerous cutter and connected on a respectable 36 percent of his spot-up three-pointers this season, but he has struggled badly since returning from an ankle injury in late March. In this game, a few early misses sapped his confidence, as he finished 0-for-4 from deep and passed up a few other good looks. As a team, the Celtics finished just 5-of-28 from deep.

The Hawks took Tom Thibodeau's famous strong-side overload scheme, only they added some steroids to beef it up. They kept speedy point guard Jeff Teague glued to Thomas and used the length, guile and quick feet of Al Horford and Paul Millsap to wall off the paint.

No player in the NBA drove to the basket more frequently than Thomas this season, per NBA.com, and yet he was unable to find even the tiniest of holes on Tuesday. The few times he did slither into the lane, the Hawks, who held opponents to a league-low 56.7 percent shooting in the restricted area this season, slid over and forced Thomas into difficult looks.

The Haws knew that the Celtics needed a big game from Thomas in order to win. He was Boston's primary offensive option all year, and his importance has only grown over the past week. With Bradley out and the stellar Atlanta defense staring at them from across the floor, the Celtics find themselves in an inextricable position.

Maybe Stevens can come up with a wrinkle or two to create some spacing, or perhaps Smart, Crowder or someone like Jonas Jerebko can get hot. Until then, though, the Hawks will devote all their energy to corralling Thomas. If none of Thomas' teammates can hit an outside shot, there's nothing he and Stevens can do.