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Favorites are now in tight quarters

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Peter May
Globe Staff / April 29, 2008

ATLANTA - Good grief, now what?

The series with the Hawks is 2-2? The 37-win Hawks who looked clueless, hapless, and hopeless in Games 1 and 2? The Hawks who TNT's Mike Fratello said didn't even belong on the same court with the Celtics in the first two games? The Celtics couldn't get one win down here against that team? Yes. Yes. Yes. No.

So, Doc Rivers, what do you tell all those people who are on the various bridge ledges in and around Boston?

"Don't jump," the Celtics coach said shortly after his team dropped its second straight game at a raucous, sold-out Philips Arena, 97-92, a loss that now makes it a best-of-three affair with Game 5 tomorrow night.

"I told the guys this after the game. 'Yes, we're going home. But you can't rely on the fact that you're at home. You gotta make it OK,' and I think we will. I don't think anything is going to shake our confidence."

Well, Joe Johnson might not have shaken it, but he might well have stirred it a little last night, especially with his epic fourth-quarter performance. The Celtics still have the advantage in the series. The Hawks still have to win one in Boston. But while that may still be a daunting task for the Hawks, you get the sense that it's not as daunting as it was before. In a way, they don't know what they don't know - and they're having a blast not knowing it.

"We got a little momentum going now," said Johnson, who finished with 35 points, 20 in the fourth quarter (when he personally outscored the Celtics, who had 17). "Back in Boston, they hit us and we never hit back. But we've got the momentum now and we've got to take it."

Where to begin with this one? Save for a shot-from-guns start and a defensive stretch at the end of the third quarter, when the Celtics played the way they did all season, Rivers's lads had few answers for the young, springy, energetic, athletic, and opportunistic Hawks. Atlanta also is developing a resiliency previously unseen and, frankly, one it didn't show much of during the season. The Celtics hit the Hawks with a 16-3 start in the first 3:28 - and Atlanta ended up leading by 5 after one.

But the real head-scratcher for Celtics fans was the fourth quarter. The aforementioned defensive stretch at the end of the third, in which the Hawks were completely shut down and went four possessions without getting off a shot, enabled Boston to take a 10-point lead into the fourth. In the regular season, that was money. During the regular season, the Celtics were 23-3 on the road when they led after three quarters. And this was a double-digit lead.

"We'd been down before," shrugged Johnson, referencing the first quarter. "We knew we had a chance."

Rivers thought the first possession of the fourth quarter was the biggest of the game. Johnson, who was 7 of 10 in the quarter, sprung free for a 3-pointer.

"That gave them hope," Rivers said. "And that got Joe going. We probably could have done a better job on him, but give him credit. He made them."

And watching Johnson slice and dice through the Boston defense is going to give Celtics assistant Tom Thibodeau a couple of sleepless nights. Johnson was LeBron-esque, going around people, falling back, leaning forward, making shot after shot after shot. Where on earth was the help? Where on earth was a double-team to take the ball out of his hands? Why did the defense, when it was there, steer Johnson into open areas instead of into some guy with a green jersey, as is normally the case?

"It will be interesting to watch the film to see what we didn't do," said Ray Allen, who was charged with guarding Johnson, but more often than not was running into Mike Bibby picks when the clear-outs started. And that's what they were. This wasn't Hawks coach Mike Woodson calling plays. This was Johnson taking over.

"He willed us to win this game," Woodson said. "We just rode him. It was beautiful to see."

The Hawks shot 60 percent in the fourth quarter. The Celtics shot 33.3 percent. It was a complete role reversal from what we'd seen all season and, admit it, what most of us expected to see in the postseason as well. It was the Hawks' defense that made big plays (a Josh Smith block on Garnett) although Rivers said he'd take the looks the Celtics had any day. Atlanta dominated the glass, 11-4, with no bigger rebound than the one Josh Childress corralled off a Smith miss with the Hawks clinging to a 3-point lead.

The Celtics now know they're in a series. They may say the right things publicly, but, if you gave them truth serum after Game 2, they'd have to say they figured they'd only be making one trip to Georgia this month. It was that lopsided.

Now, they're back home, which will help. Young teams have trouble on the road, especially in the playoffs, and, lest we forget, the Hawks are new to all this. But they also are a reinvigorated, confident bunch that now knows they can play with the Celtics. That is a state of mind they did not have when this series began.

Peter May can be reached at pmay@globe.com

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