This was a playoff type game. In a much anticipated matchup the 7th seeded Boston Celtics took on the 6th seeded Atlanta Hawks in a high intensity, grind it out game. Two of the best defensive teams in the league went nose to nose with the Celtics pulling away late and escaping with a three point victory. Former Celtic Joe Johnson managed 25 for Atlanta in a losing effort while Ray Allen paced the Celtics with 19 and Rajon Rondo added 10 points and 13 assists. The Hawks held an eight point third quarter advantage while the Celtics built a 15 point fourth quarter bulge. The Hawks closed strong but Jeff Teague missed a potential game tying three and the Celtics survived. Boston (24-21) is now 3-3 on their road trip and trail Atlanta by one game in the loss column.
Nothing came easily in the first half for either team, as indicated by the 33-31 score at the break. The Celtics didn't get many good looks at the basket, and when they did they missed them. As bad as it was in the first half, the Celtic offense got even worse in the third quarter, looking completely out of sync which allowed the Hawks to build an eight point lead. However the Celtic's mounted a mini 8-4 run before a Rondo steal got them a side out of bounds play with two seconds left in the quarter. Rondo used a ball fake to Kevin Garnett to find Allen for an open three and Ray buried it at the buzzer to pull the Celtics within one. The Celtics carried that momentum into the final frame finally building some offensive momentum. Later Allen and Mickael Pietrus would hit three long balls in a row, with Allen's last giving the Celtics a 73-58 lead which should have sealed the game.
Play to the Whistle
The Celtics had a 15 point lead with under three minutes to go in the fourth quarter. The Celtics then simply stopped running their offense, and the Hawks closed the game on a 16-4 run. They stopped playing the game and started playing the clock, a mistake a veteran team simply should not make, particularly with an explosive scorer like Johnson on the other side. The Celtics let the Hawks back in to a game that should have been over. Jeff Teague had a wide open shot to tie the game. Luckily for the Celtics he missed and Boston escaped with a three point win. The Celtics know better than this. They need to close out games better. They must play to the whistle.
Get the Ball to Ray
If you like offensive fireworks, the first three quarters of this game were not for you. Both teams were just abysmal from the floor. The only team worse on offense than the Hawks in the first three was the Celtics. However, once again, the Celtics offense got going when Ray Allen did. When Ray gets some looks the game opens up for Boston. Once the Celtics got Ray a few shots, and Ray hit a few, everything started flowing. The Celtics need to do a better job getting Ray involved early. Their offense is just miles better when he is hitting from the perimeter.
Can You Say Rebound?
The Celtics problems on the boards have been well documented. Boston has been getting absolutely obliterated on the boards all season, particularly on this latest road trip. However tonight the Celtics actually did a good job on the boards. Lately if Kevin Garnett hasn't gotten the rebound no one has. But Doc Rivers finally got through to the Celtics that rebounding has to be a team effort. The Celtics were gang rebounding all game long, getting position on players like Zaza Pachulia, who have killed the Celtics on the glass all season. Brandon Bass in particular was miles better on the glass tonight than he has been, finishing with 10 total boards. Avery Bradley was the only Celtic not to record a rebound, indicating that every Celtic was hitting the glass tonight. The Celtics need bigs, but until they get one they will have to rebound as a team.
Mixed Results from the Bench
The stat sheet will say that Boston only got 13 points from the bench, which one would think isn't enough. However both Mickael Pietrus and Greg Stiemsma gave the Celtics excellent minutes tonight. Pietrus played almost 29 minutes, with Paul Pierce battling foul trouble all night, and chipped in nine points plus some excellent defense on Joe Johsnon. Meanwhile Stiemsma managed four points and four more big blocked shots. Avery Bradley had a rough night, forcing Rivers to go back to Rondo earlier than he wanted to, and Keyon Dooling is still struggling to find his way. However, without the effort from Pietrus and Stiemsma the Celtics probably lose.
What It Means
As regular season games go this was a big one. Not only was it a quality win for the Celtics, but it came against the team directly ahead of them in the standings. Was it a statement game? Probably not, but it does go a little way toward putting the Hawks in their place. The Celtics rededication to the boards, and their ability to pull away late, are both extremely encouraging signs. Obviously one would like to see them close better, but at this point any win is a big plus. The Celtics now trail the Hawks by one game in the loss column and will look to real Atlanta and Philadelphia in down the stretch. This was Celtic basketball – a gut it out game. Whenever the Celtics are rested for a big game they have come up with a strong effort.
Boston's brutal cross country road trip is mercifully drawing to a close. The Celtics wrap up their trip by visiting Monta Ellis and the Milwaukee Bucks on thursday at 8:00 pm and then travel to Philadelphia to face the Sixers on Friday. If the Celtics can get these two games, and walk away from this road trip over .500, it would be absolutely huge for them. This cross country tour has been a total grind. The Celtics have gutted it out thus far. If they can close it out strong they would have more momentum than they have had all season.
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