Hawks' upset bid doesn't fly
Celtics have no trouble securing victory
They might not have home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, but the Celtics have it now and are fully capitalizing on the situation.
The Celtics (58-19) earned a 104-92 victory over the Atlanta Hawks last night, remaining a game ahead of Orlando for the No. 2 Eastern Conference playoff seed. The Celtics have four days to prepare for their game Wednesday against New Jersey, the fourth of a five-game homestand, their longest of the season.
This was a surprisingly easy victory, the Celtics' fourth this season and seventh straight in the regular season over Atlanta since April 10, 2007. And the Celtics' apparent comfort level illustrated the advantages of performing on the parquet.
A strong start to the second half allowed the Celtics to rest Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Rajon Rondo for most of the final quarter.
"Right now, we're building on just playing good basketball going into the playoffs," Pierce said. "We started off not really rebounding the ball, but I thought we defended well the whole night, and that's going to be the key. That's our focus night in and night out, is the way we defend."
Kendrick Perkins set the defensive tone with seven blocked shots, tying a career high. And Rondo stepped up the pace, igniting the Celtics' transition offense, scoring 13 of his 20 points in the third quarter.
The Celtics went on a 10-point run over a 1:38 span early in the third, starting with Glen Davis's banker, followed by consecutive 3-pointers by Allen and Pierce, and a Rondo dunk off a steal out of a Hawks timeout for a 62-52 lead with 8:15 remaining in the quarter. Josh Smith broke Atlanta's 0-for-11 3-point drought with 7:31 left (the first of three straight Hawk threes), then dunked to pull the Hawks within 63-57 with 6:56 remaining.
The Celtics then went into three mode for their final 9 points of the quarter for an 80-71 lead. Mikki Moore converted a 3-point play off a follow with 2:02 to go, then in the final 11 seconds Rondo hit a 3-pointer at the shot-clock buzzer and made three free throws off a 3-point try as the Hawks attempted to give a foul.
"[Rondo] has so many tricks up his sleeve," Perkins said. "The half-court thing, he knew they were going to foul him, so he threw it up and got three shots. His basketball IQ is through the roof.
"When Rondo is aggressive, I think there is no team in the league that can beat us. I'm talking about when he is looking to score, I think he's one of the better point guards in the league, and I don't think he gets enough credit. He's been working on his jump shot and he's just got to shoot it with confidence."
The Celtics started the way they finished a 111-109, double-overtime win over Charlotte Wednesday, Allen converting a 3-pointer off a Pierce drive 67 seconds into the game. But that would be the only three for either team until the second half, the Celtics finding the lane open for uncontested drives and the Hawks' lack of inside defending setting them up for failure, according to coach Mike Woodson.
"Both coaches got each team fired up, and you could tell Coach Woodson probably came out and told them to play physical," Perkins said. "They tried to play physical, but you can't be something that you're not. Either you're physical or you're not, I don't care who tells you to be."
Said Woodson, "I think they wore us down in terms of their physical play. The game was established in the first and second quarters. I mean, we gave up 12, 13 layups, and you can't do that against this team. To give up all those layups, it buries you if it's a close game."
If both teams were posturing for the playoffs, the Celtics have a strong upper hand.
"Everybody keeps talking about it's a rivalry," Perkins said. "How is it a rivalry? Last year, we beat them [during the regular] season, then they took us to seven games, then we beat them, 4-0, this year. When you have a team's number, keep it."
Playoff seeding could go to the final week of the season. Cleveland is three wins from clinching the top seed, despite losing to the Magic last night.
"We have a good schedule," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "We earned it. The first month was awful and they are paying us back now."
Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at email@example.com.