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In this game, they obeyed stop signs

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / May 5, 2008

When they trudged off the court Friday night at Philips Arena following their sobering Game 6 setback to the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks, the Celtics weren't deflated or devastated as much as they were determined to make more of a defensive commitment in Game 7.

"Yeah, because we weren't getting stops when we needed stops down in Atlanta," said Leon Powe. "You know, we let a couple of people get loose, and here we predicated everything on defense. When we play good defense, we usually win the game."

While the Celtics struggled defensively on the road in their tussle with Atlanta's young turks, that certainly wasn't the case at TD Banknorth Garden yesterday, where a sellout crowd of 18,624 watched Boston close out the series, 4 games to 3, with a 99-65 triumph.

To the surprise of few, the seeds of this Game 7 demolition were sown on the defensive end.

"The defensive energy was off the charts," said coach Doc Rivers, whose team earned a second-round matchup against the fourth-seeded Cavaliers, who closed out their first-round series against the Wizards Friday, 4-2.

The Celtics dismantled the Hawks by limiting them to 26 points at the half, 29.3-percent shooting overall (24 of 82), and allowing just one Atlanta starter, Joe Johnson, to score in double figures (16 points).

"At home, I thought we were a lot [more] physical, a lot faster, a lot stronger," Johnson said. "You know, we were more poised. On the road, it was kind of like we were a bat out of hell. We had no continuity, we didn't play together on the road. What can I say? We let them out-tough us every game [in Boston]."

Johnson went off for 20 of his game-high 35 points in the fourth quarter of Atlanta's 97-92 triumph in Game 4, but yesterday the Celtics put the clamps on him with a stellar defensive effort in the third quarter, allowing Johnson just 4 points on 1-for-6 shooting from the field (0 of 3 from behind the arc).

"We knew we let a couple of games get away in Atlanta," said Paul Pierce, who broke his self-imposed media blackout, as promised, at the conclusion of the series. "And I just knew we were going to take care of business."

The Celtics were determined to not allow any easy layups, to rebound the ball, to dive for loose balls, to contest each shot, and to bring the defense from Atlanta's first possession (a Johnson 3-pointer) to its last (a goaltending call against P.J. Brown on Solomon Jones's layup with 34.1 seconds left).

"I thought it was typical Celtic defense from start to finish," Brown said. "I thought our third quarter was one of the best quarters that I've seen in a long time. The No. 1 thing is we know we can get it done at home and we know what kind of energy and intensity that we can play with at home, but we need to transfer it to the road."

The Celtics stretched a 44-26 halftime lead to 36 points (79-43) by the end of the third after outscoring the Hawks, 35-17. The Hawks were limited to 5-of-24 shooting (0 of 4 from behind the arc) in the quarter. The Celtics, meanwhile, overcame some chippy play - Marvin Williams was ejected for a flagrant foul on Rajon Rondo with 9:09 left in the third - to convert 13 of 22 shots, including 2 of 6 from behind the arc and 7 of 8 from the line.

If anyone personified Boston's defensive effort, it was Kendrick Perkins, who smoldered with intensity from the opening tip. Perkins, who had 10 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 blocked shots in 26:34, set the tone with his first-quarter performance (8 points, 6 rebounds, 2 blocks in 12 minutes).

"Kendrick was phenomenal," Rivers said. "I thought he set the tone defensively as much as anyone."

Perkins, who admitted staying up until 2:30 a.m. before finally nodding off Saturday night, was committed to letting his defense speak for him.

"It was crazy," Perkins said of the Celtics' pregame mood. "You could see guys, [the look] on their faces, nobody was trying to go home. Ray [Allen] told me that this was the most important game of his career. He stepped up on the defensive end."

Perkins added, "I always feed off of KG [Kevin Garnett], every time I look at him, it is so business-like, the focus he brings, the intensity he brings. It just rubs off."

Yesterday, though, Perkins provided a lot of that spark.

"I thought our defensive energy was great," he said. "I thought it was the best we've had all season. We just have to build on this and keep carrying it on."

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.

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