The Atlanta Hawks arrived in Boston last night without a win since Antoine Walker left them and returned to the Celtics two weeks ago. But leading late in the fourth quarter, the visitors had to wonder if the basketball gods were finally smiling upon them in the FleetCenter. If they couldn't win without Walker, maybe they could win against him.
Unfortunately for Atlanta, fate has been more cruel than kind this season. That certainly seemed to be the case in the closing stages of last night's game.
Walker turned his familiarity with the Hawks against them, easily figuring out what they would do down the stretch and guarding go-to guy Al Harrington. With 34.9 seconds left and the Celtics clinging to a 1-point lead, Walker stole the ball from Harrington to start a fast break that Ricky Davis finished with a layup. The sequence deflated Atlanta and put Boston in position to close out a 95-91 victory.
The crowd of 16,089 had to hold its breath after Harrington hit a long distance shot with 12.5 seconds remaining that appeared might be a tying 3-pointer but wasn't because Harrington's right toe was on the arc.
Paul Pierce, who went 5 for 6 from the line in the final 16.5 seconds and scored 16 of his 27 points in the fourth, sealed the victory.
"Some way, somehow we've got to pull games out like this," said Pierce, who added 10 rebounds. "I really didn't have it going most of the night, but in the fourth quarter my teammates made a concentrated effort to get me the ball and put me in position to score, and I was able to do that."
In the closing minutes, Walker (15 points, 9 rebounds, 3 steals) showed his desire to defeat his former team and improve the Celtics' position in the Atlantic Division standings. Boston now has a three-game lead on Philadelphia.
A Walker 3-pointer tied the game, 79-79, with 5:43 remaining, finally waking up Boston and placing the home team in position to take its first lead. An 18-footer from Pierce with 3:54 remaining gave Boston its first advantage of the contest. A missed free throw by Pierce left the door open for the Hawks, but the Walker steal kept the Celtics from losing the lead in the closing minute.
Asked if he wanted to defend Harrington late in the fourth, Walker said, "Oh yeah, I just wanted to guard him. I knew from playing against him [in practice], some of his characteristics, what he likes to do. I knew every play they were going to run. It was going to be simple: Al Harrington. I just knew what it was and I wanted the challenge of guarding him. I think Paul would have been trying to be too physical with him."
What the Celtics lacked in intensity they made up for with perseverance in the face of early offensive struggles. While they knew better than to take the worst team in the league lightly, even though Atlanta took to the parquet for the second of back-to-back road games and with a 12-game losing streak, Boston muddled through the first half and entered the break behind, 52-46. Shooting 46 percent from the field despite missing a number of layups and all eight attempts from 3-point range, the Celtics were a frustrated group.
While Atlanta benefited in the first half from timely offensive rebounding (10 second-chance points) and the ability to get to the line more than twice as many times as the Celtics, Boston made it even harder on itself by failing to take advantage of Walker in the post. The coaching staff estimated the Celtics went 13 possessions without feeding the ball to Walker in the post, forcing coach Doc Rivers to take an early timeout and remind his players of the preferred strategy on offense.
Still, Boston trailed, 70-64, entering the fourth, so the win left Rivers thankful and hoping his team would be able to avoid a repeat performance.
"Sometimes you just can't get a read when you try to predict how your team is going to perform," said Rivers. "If I had to predict, I thought we were really going to come out with a lot of energy, just by the way we practiced. But we didn't and we survived. From the third quarter on, I knew it was going to be a survival game. You could feel it. We let them stick around. They started believing and making shots. Then, you could see our guys physically try to get themselves going.
"I don't want to get in the habit [of playing poorly and winning]. You can't do that too many times because you're going to get burned. The basketball gods will get upset at you and you'll lose the games."
Atlanta can only hope the basketball gods reverse fortunes sometime soon.