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Hawks 100, Celtics 91

Hawks sweep floor with Celtics

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / January 30, 2010

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ATLANTA - The idea that none of the four losses the Atlanta Hawks handed the Boston Celtics this season matter, that the playoffs are an entirely new season, or that a regular-season game can only say so much may only be a partial truth.

It matters that the Celtics lost four games to a team they had beaten four times last year.

It means any idea of dominance in the Eastern Conference may have vanished. Teams such as the Hawks, a pack of young wolves biting at the heels of a veteran Celtics team, may not only be a possible threat, but a legitimate rival.

When the Hawks took the Celtics to seven games in the first round of the 2008 playoffs, they planted a seed. The team that dealt the Celtics a 100-91 loss last night, sweeping them in a season for the first time since 1998-99 (and for the first time in a four-game series since 1995-96), had matured over the last two years.

They have All-Stars such as Joe Johnson (27 points), who went from taking every shot to simply making the big ones, and Al Horford (11 points, eight rebounds), who went from a promising rookie two years ago to an All-Star today. They have veterans. They are playoff bound. And not as an eighth seed.

There is a difference, and even Celtics captain Paul Pierce acknowledged that in a matter of months when the playoffs come, it may mean something.

“Once the playoffs start it’s all 0-0,’’ Pierce said. “But you know they feel like they have the edge.’’

The Celtics had acknowledged their own flawed logic: That even though the Hawks viewed them as a rival, the feeling wasn’t mutual.

After Jamal Crawford, a mercenary brought in during the offseason to kill teams like the Celtics, broke loose for a dunk that gave him the last of his team-high 28 points and Johnson drilled a 25-footer with 33 seconds sealing the Hawks win, the Hawks’ PA announcer asked the Celtics as they trudged off the floor, “Is it a rivalry now?’’

To the Hawks, said coach Mike Woodson, “It was a playoff game.’’

The Celtics, said Rajon Rondo, couldn’t say the same thing. “I think that’s why they came out and played the way they did,’’ he said.

The Celtics jumped out to an early lead, digging a 16-7 hole for the Hawks. Pierce scored 12 of his game-high 35 points in the first quarter. But rather than collapse, the Hawks responded.

Crawford, a starter in a sixth man’s body, scored 18 points in the first half, hitting wild shot after wild shot, none crazier than the half-court hurl at the end of the first quarter that turned a 22-20 Hawks deficit into a 23-20 Hawks lead after one.

“That’s what made him feel like he couldn’t miss,’’ Rondo said.

From that point, the pace sped, the atmosphere boiled the 18,732 fans at Phillips Arena, and the Celtics found themselves in a battle that was part dogfight, part track meet.

They fell behind by as many as 14 points, but crawled back in the third quarter at the free throw line. Pierce went 10 for 10 in the third quarter alone, but aside from a 15-point, seven-rebound effort by Kevin Garnett, playing just his fourth game since returning from a hyperextended knee, Pierce seemed to be the Celtics’ only offensive option.

As open as Rasheed Wallace was on his five 3-point attempts, he made only one. Ray Allen and Rondo were a combined 7 of 26. Crawford outscored the entire Celtics bench, 28-18.

How much it means is a matter of perspective.

“It means a lot,’’ said Woodson. “It’s a team that we’re going to see down the line. That’s a team we have a lot of confidence against [compared to] a couple of years ago when the Hawks took it to seven games.’’

For the players in the Celtics’ locker room, “It means that they lost,’’ said Doc Rivers. “They lost to the Atlanta Hawks. I don’t think it means much more than that. Nobody wants to get swept, but I don’t think you get to go to the second round when you sweep a team in the regular season. That I know of. You get to go to the next game.’’

The next one, a Sunday afternoon game against the NBA champion Lakers, doesn’t look any easier.

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