If the script this season calls for comebacks, the Celtics are playing their roles to the hilt.
Paul Pierce was the protagonist again last night, this time in the most dramatic last-second fashion.
For the second time in three days, Pierce (34 points) bailed out the Celtics in the final quarter, his jumper over Al Horford with 0.5 seconds on the clock providing the difference in a 103-102 win over Atlanta in a showdown of Eastern Conference leaders.
As in Monday's 94-87 win over Toronto, the Celtics (8-1) were nearly buried before digging themselves out of a 16-point hole in the first half against the Hawks (6-1). But the Celtics struggled to clinch this victory, despite having the Hawks fluttering in the second half without Zaza Pachulia (shoulder), who started in place of Josh Smith (ankle sprain).
In fact, the Hawks nearly pulled this one out, taking the lead on Marvin Williams's 3-pointer with 7.4 seconds to go. Then, the Celtics set up Pierce off a Kevin Garnett screen, Pierce going to the right of the lane, just in front of the Celtics' bench, lofting a 16-footer over Horford.
"Once I went right, I had the big guy [Horford] on me, I sort of got to my sweet spot," Pierce said. "The play was to get the ball to Kevin, and if they switched off, either hand off or he would take the drive down the lane. But they switched and put Horford on me and I knew I could get to my spot."
The Celtics equaled their nine-game pace of last season, clamping down defensively and concluding the second quarter with a 23-7 run following a timeout with 7:02 remaining, extending their winning streak to six games.
"I told them to play together," coach Doc Rivers said of the timeout. "Everyone was thinking of putting a shot up instead of playing together."
The pep talk worked, the Celtics then converting two 3-pointers and two 3-point plays in a 4:12 period to start a rally. The Celtics scored only once from the field in the final 2:30 of the half, but it was a spectacular Garnett 3-point play dunk off a Rajon Rondo lob, providing the Celtics with a 51-50 lead with 33 seconds remaining.
The Celtics appeared to have momentum, then the Hawks started the second half without Pachulia - yet, despite a size disadvantage and a 14-9 rebounding deficit in the quarter, the Hawks took a 77-76 lead on Flip Murray's foul shot with 4.3 seconds to go.
After Leon Powe's foul shot provided an 84-83 lead with 8:51 left, the Celtics were in the bonus situation and seemed to be in command. Sixteen seconds later, Powe drew a charge from Williams, who became the third Hawk to compile five fouls.
But the Hawks were resilient.
The Celtics went to the starters with 4:56 remaining, Garnett (25 points, 12 rebounds) breaking an 88-all tie with a third-chance, top-of-the-key jumper, then extending the lead to 92-88 off a Rondo lob with 3:33 left. Rondo just beat the 24-second shot clock for a 96-92 edge with 2:09 to go. Pierce, who scored the Celtics' final 7 points, countered a Maurice Evans 3-pointer with a 3-point play for a 99-95 lead with 1:37 seconds left. Joe Johnson (28 points) tied the game with two foul shots and a pull-up in a 28-second span.
Pierce's two foul shots with 21 seconds left and Williams's 3-pointer set up the final sequence.
"The Hawks have been playing really well and we knew it was going to be a tough game," Pierce said. "We watched them on film, how hard they play, they're one of the best defensive teams this year, and they have a lot of talent.
"The key for us is to continue to grow. We know it's a long season and it's a pretty tough schedule with the teams we're playing. We're playing a lot of playoff teams early. I always said you don't have to learn from losses, you can learn from wins. And, definitely, the last two games we're learning and we have to get off to better starts."
Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at email@example.com.