For the first 18 minutes of the game, the Hawks had a ridiculous eFG% of 20.5%. For the next 18 minutes of the game, the Hawks had a ridiculous eFG% of 84.2%. For the entirety of the meaningful 36 minutes of the game, the Hawks had a reasonable eFG% of 54.2%.
There are reasons beyond cold probability that the Hawks shot significantly better for one stretch of the game than another. The Celtics came out playing very good defense from the jump. Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko took Marcus Smart's lead, getting physical leverage against Paul Millsap and Al Horford in the post. Smart and Isaiah Thomas defended Kyle Korver as well as they have so far in the series. That the Hawks were not getting the typical looks that allowed them to shoot 51.6% over 82 games contributed to them shooting 20.5% for a quarter-and-a-half last night.
Similarly, it is not entirely coincidental that the Hawks started making shots with unsustainable frequency at roughly the same moment they started turning stops into transition opportunities. A below average offense looked significantly better when it didn't have to face a set defense as often.
The most frustrating thing about watching the Hawks spend much of the last four playoff series missing a higher percentage of shots than they have over the last two regular seasons is, natch, watching the Hawks miss shots. The second most frustrating thing is the tendency to formulate a supernatural explanation for the misses.
It's not impossible that the Hawks have struggled to convert the chances they're pleased to have created in the playoffs due to a collective character or psychological defect, but I contend the defensive performance they put on, possession-by-possession while shooting 20.5%, at home, in front of an increasingly anxious and frustrated audience demonstrates tremendous discipline and commitment. Which conforms with my prejudice to dismiss the character/psychological explanation for missed shots. Funny how that works.
Variance is not confined to shot-making. Though they've been excellent overall, the Hawks have not been perfect defensively for all five games in this series. They looked shockingly unprepared in the first quarter of Game 3. The transition defense* fell apart in the second half of the third quarter of Game 4. Still, the Hawks are holding the Celtics to 95 points per 100 possessions in this series, by bettering their second-best defense in the regular season numbers in three of the four factors.
*The chief culprit in Game 4, Mike Scott, was excellent for the second time this series, in Game 5.
The Hawks entered the playoffs with a 2-3% chance of winning the title, a 7-8% chance of winning the East, because they allowed 5 fewer points per 100 possessions than the league this season. The Hawks entered the playoffs with a 2-3% chance of winning the title, a 7-8% chance of winning the East, because they scored 1.3 points fewer than the league per 100 possessions this season. Offensive struggles, especially comical offensive struggles, tend toward the obvious. That's but half the story.