THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Atlanta’s growth spurt was the biggest factor

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / November 14, 2009

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They had already mounted a few heads on the mantel.

New Orleans.

Portland.

Denver.

But the 97-86 win over the Celtics last night at the Garden was the kind of prize the Hawks had been eyeing for two years.

The Hawks had the Celtics on their minds in the preseason when Al Horford went on a local radio station and said Celtics captain Paul Pierce owed him $10,000 from 2008 when Pierce supposedly bet Horford that the Hawks wouldn’t win a game in their first-round series.

They won three, nearly ending the Celtics’ championship run. But the rap on that Hawks team was the players were young, inexperienced, and happy to be where they were.

In the end, the Hawks were better for that series. Even though they lost all four meetings against the Celtics last season, Atlanta won 47 games, the franchise’s highest total since 1998.

“I think if you go back two years ago, the Celtics taught us how to play playoff basketball,’’ Atlanta coach Mike Woodson said. “And it really set us up for last season in terms of the 47 wins and securing one of the top four spots. I always thought if you can beat the best team in basketball, there’s not a team in the league that you can’t beat. But now our expectations are higher this year, we’re trying to get to a better place than we were last year.’’

After losing seven straight regular-season games to the Celtics, the Hawks expected to be as rabid as possible.

“It’s been a long, long time,’’ said Josh Smith. “We were able to beat a championship-caliber team.’’

They outrebounded the Celtics, 47-29, with Horford (13 rebounds), Smith (7), and Joe Johnson (7) wiping the boards clean enough to see their reflections.

“We wanted to stay active,’’ Smith said. “And just be able to keep them off the glass because they’re a good offensive and defensive rebounding team.’’

Atlanta turned those rebounds into 22 second-chance points (to the Celtics’ 4).

“They keep the ball alive,’’ said Rasheed Wallace. “Just tip it out and, ‘All right, let’s go back at it.’ ’’

The effort was undeniable.

“They beat us up tonight,’’ Kevin Garnett said.

“They kicked our butt,’’ Doc Rivers said.

But it wasn’t just the rebounding or the physicality. It was the composure.

Late in the fourth quarter, the Hawks held an 87-76 lead with less than five minutes to play. In the past, Atlanta might have fallen apart in that situation. But this time, it was the Celtics who wobbled. Johnson (24 points) and Jamal Crawford (18) got to the paint and hit clutch layups and free throws that kept Boston at bay.

“Keep attacking, keep making plays,’’ Johnson said. “Mainly, we never backed down. We know it’s a tough team - arguably the best team in basketball - and we took it to them tonight.’’

And as they walked off the floor - Mike Bibby (11 years), Crawford (nine), and Johnson (eight) alongside Smith (five) and Horford (two) - they looked like a different team.

“It’s all about growing,’’ Horford said. “And I feel like we’ve done that the last three years.’’

Of the four losses to the Celtics last year, Woodson said the 103-102 setback last November was particularly painful.

“When you lose a tough game like we did last year - we didn’t falter by any means, we continued to play well - but you always remember that game,’’ Woodson said. “And I thought tonight coming in, I reminded them of that game, because we did play well enough to win here last year, but we just didn’t get it done. So tonight we were committed all the way for 48 minutes. I just hope this is a game that continues to carry our team on to bigger things.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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