ATLANTA - The Celtics worked hard to earn home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. But who would have thought that insurance policy would be needed in the first round?
Last night, the Atlanta Hawks forced a deciding seventh game by defeating the Celtics, 103-100, at Philips Arena. The winner of tomorrow's Game 7 back in Boston will face Cleveland in the second round. The Cavaliers advanced by eliminating Washington last night, 4-2.
"It's either win or go home," said Celtics guard Rajon Rondo. "We've just got to go out there and get the job done."
Only three times in NBA history has a top seed been upset by an eighth seed, including Golden State's win over Dallas last year. Boston, which has hopes of winning a 17th NBA title, is a loss away from arguably the biggest upset in NBA history.
"From Day 1 I told this team that anything is possible when you get to the playoffs, and this team believes that," said Atlanta coach Mike Woodson. "We are going to Boston, the crowd will be hostile, but if we stick with our game plan and not dig a hole early, we will give ourselves a chance to win."
The Celtics lost all three games here by an average of 5.7 points. The good news for Boston is that it is 5-0 against Atlanta at TD Banknorth this season, and 3-0 in this series with an average margin of victory of 12.3 points.
"What other people think about this team does not bother us," said Hawks forward Josh Smith. "We know we can play with this team or anybody else. We didn't come into this series to lose or just being satisfied with making the playoffs."
Said Celtics coach Doc Rivers, "We feel good at home all the time. That's why we fought all year to get home-court advantage. As I said after Game 5, we can't just hang our hat on being at home."
A crowd of 20,425, many wearing white "Hawks Shock the World" T-shirts, jammed Philips Arena, a record for the venue.
Celtics forward Kevin Garnett, who had a game-high 22 points to go with 7 rebounds and 6 assists, acknowledged the Atlanta fans have been a factor in the series.
"What you're seeing is the home court. I've said this numerous times . . . I've played in the league 13 years now and I've been coming to Atlanta for all 13, and this is the first time I've seen the atmosphere like this."
Marvin Williams's lay-in gave Atlanta an 83-82 advantage, its first lead since 2-0, with 11:04 remaining in the game. Al Horford's 3-point play gave the Hawks an 86-84 lead. James Posey's 3-pointer gave Boston an 89-86 lead with 8:47 remaining.
With 7:34 left, Paul Pierce got up gingerly after unsuccessfully attempting to draw a charge on Josh Childress. Pierce had some back issues earlier in the series and he went to the bench after the foul. Joe Johnson made two free throws with 6:49 left to give Atlanta a 93-89 lead.
Childress's 3-point play with 4:44 left gave Atlanta a 96-89 lead. Pierce, who had 17 points and six assists, fouled out on the play and received a technical after throwing his headband.
"He got frustrated," Rondo said. "He fouled out. He just got frustrated."
Johnson (15 points) nailed a deep 3-pointer at the shot-clock buzzer to give Atlanta a 100-95 lead with 1:07 remaining. Posey followed with a 3-pointer with 48 seconds left to bring the Celtics within 100-98. Johnson missed a jumper with 25.9 seconds left that was rebounded by Garnett.
With 13.8 seconds left, Ray Allen (20 points) missed a well-contested 3-pointer that was rebounded by Johnson. After Johnson was fouled, he hit two free throws with 10.6 seconds left. A quick bucket by Garnett off an inbounds pass with 8.7 seconds left gave trimmed Boston's deficit to 102-100.
Mike Bibby (17 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds) made 1 of 2 free throws with 7.4 seconds left to give Atlanta a 103-100 lead. After the Celtics inbounded, Rondo attempted to get the ball to Allen or Posey. But without anyone open, Rondo, a poor 3-point shooter, threw up an air ball, and the series was headed back to Boston.
"It is what it is," Garnett said. "We have a Game 7. And it's what it is. We've got to win."