|Paul Pierce screams with delight after his jump shot put the Celtics ahead by 30. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)|
Kevin Garnett and Kendrick Perkins didn't sleep at all the night before the big game. Ray Allen sent text messages at midnight to several teammates, giving encouragement and mentioning the greatness of their season. And thanks to a pill, coach Doc Rivers was able to sleep like a baby instead of stress over his Celtics' upcoming Game 7.
But after knocking off the Hawks with a 99-65 rout yesterday afternoon at TD Banknorth Garden, the Celtics surely slept well last night. The Eastern Conference's top seed won the series, 4 games to 3 over the surprising eighth-seeded Hawks; next up is a second-round matchup against LeBron James and the reigning East champion Cavaliers, starting tomorrow night at the Garden.
"I haven't slept, so I should get some sleep [last night]," said Garnett, who had 18 points and 11 rebounds. "I've been up for damn near 24 hours thinking about Game 6 and the things we [needed] to do."
Boston finished with a regular-season best 66 wins, 31 road victories, and championship dreams. The Hawks had the fewest wins of any team in the postseason (37) and were the youngest squad, too. The Celtics swept Atlanta in three games in the regular season and won the first two games at home in the series.
But after winning three games in front of their sold-out and rowdy home crowd, the Hawks put themselves in position to make history. Only three teams in NBA history had knocked off a top seed in the first round, including Golden State upsetting Dallas last year.
The nightmarish possibility of being knocked off by the Hawks definitely caused the Celtics some stress entering Game 7.
"It's not something we talked about, but it's something that we knew," said Perkins, who had 10 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 blocks. "Everybody knew we can't be a part of that. We did a good job of handling that."
Sensing a nervous squad, Rivers spoke to several players before the game.
"I just wanted to let them know that we were going to win, that we were all right, and that each of his teammates were going to get his back," Rivers said. "I never talked about [the individual], whoever it was. I just said, 'Your teammates got your back.' "
Forward Leon Powe said the team's biggest focus was defense. The Hawks couldn't surpass 85 points in Boston, although they averaged 100.7 points in the three games in Atlanta.
Boston set the tone quickly by holding a 27-16 lead at the end of the first quarter. The Hawks missed 17 of 23 field goal attempts in the first quarter and only took two free throws.
And with the Celtics' defensive intensity strong the rest of the game, they cruised to victory by holding Atlanta to 29.3 percent field goal shooting (24 of 82) and only 16 free throw attempts. Joe Johnson (16 points) was the only Atlanta starter to score in double figures, and Boston was ahead by as many as 38 points.
"We acted like this was just a regular game and we didn't come to play at all," Johnson said. "They were more physical than us and they just really outplayed us. We didn't really put forth the effort."
The Celtics' Paul Pierce, who had a game-high 22 points, said, "For us to be an elite team, for us to make it to the championship, what we have to take from this series is we can't have any nights off and plays off, and we got to get it done on the road.
"It was a good test for us to go to Game 7. Not a lot of players go to Game 7."
Expecting a victory, Rivers watched videotape of Atlanta and Cleveland Saturday night. With only a day to prepare his players, he'll give his Celtics a crash course on the Cavaliers during practice today.
Boston and the fourth-seeded Cavaliers split their four-game season series, with no team winning on the road. James averaged 32.3 points per game in three contests, including a Celtic opponent regular-season high 38 points during Cleveland's 109-104 overtime win Nov. 27. The Cavaliers defeated Washington in six games in the first round and haven't played since Friday.
"The Cavaliers are the Eastern Conference champs from a year ago, a team that went to the Finals," Pierce said. "We know it's going to be a tough road."
While James and the Cavaliers bring a bigger challenge, the Celtics did at least have a chance to temporarily rest their nerves last night before getting back to business.
"I feel good," Perkins said. "We got a brand-new start going into a new series. It ain't time to celebrate, but I can relax a little bit and get re-focused."