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Hawks 88, Celtics 83

Celtics fizzle at the finish

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By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / April 2, 2011

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ATLANTA — Doc Rivers went into last night’s game glancing at the dashboard, checking the gauges on his team.

The early signs weren’t positive. He watched Rajon Rondo heave up a 38-footer because the shot clock was about to expire. The offense struggled to find a decent shot, missing four of its first six attempts. And after Ray Allen lost the ball out of bounds and the Hawks turned the turnover into a Josh Smith dunk, Rivers decided to call time out, if only just to pop the hood.

The Celtics came out of that huddle looking sharper, and they hung 31 points on the Hawks in the second quarter. Their lead grew to 12 in the third.

“Then we kind of relaxed,’’ Rivers said.

The points in the paint (22 in the first half) disappeared. The jump shots spiked.

“That’s a sign of fatigue,’’ Rivers said. “It’s so much easier to take jump shots.’’

The battle for rebounds became one-sided, with the Hawks gobbling up as many as they could.

“We got absolutely crushed,’’ Rivers said.

And by the fourth quarter, nothing the Celtics did leading up to that point mattered. They were in the same position they’ve been in all season when it comes to back-to-backs, running on fumes down the stretch, falling to the Hawks, 88-83.

“You knew if it came down to an extra-effort, energy game down the stretch, we were going to be in trouble,’’ Rivers said. “We got in at 4:15 in the morning. They were asleep.’’

The Hawks missed 23 shots in the first half. Paul Pierce scored 14 of his game-high 25 points before the break, but missed 6 of 10 second-half attempts. The Celtics shot 5 of 17 in the fourth quarter and 13 of 38 in the second half, stalling late after a playoff-atmosphere win over the Spurs Thursday night.

“I thought we settled,’’ Pierce said. “We took a lot of jumpers there in that third quarter where we could have pushed the lead because we were getting a lot of stops all night.’’

Rivers saw the same things, the offense unraveling as the Celtics ran out of gas, the defense suffering after that.

“At the end of the game, the one-pass rule went out the window,’’ Rivers said. “I thought we took quick, bad shots. We took all jump shots, got away from the post.

“At the end of the day, they scored 26 points [in] the fourth quarter. If you’re a great defensive team, you can never allow that many points in the fourth quarter and we did.’’

The Hawks started the fourth with a 15-5 run, and the Celtics were caught in a shootout with a Hawks team that was riding the wave of three straight wins.

Rondo (13 points) and Kevin Garnett (10 points) each grabbed 10 rebounds, but the Hawks dominated the glass, outrebounding the Celtics, 52-38.

Al Horford (16 points, 15 boards) sealed the game by sneaking through a gang of Celtics in the paint and getting an all-too-easy putback to make it a 5-point difference with seven seconds left.

Jamal Crawford led the Hawks with 20 points off the bench. Joe Johnson went 4 for 20 from the floor, but knocked down 10 of 11 free throws and finished with 19 points.

There were two early shoving matches. First, Pierce shoved Johnson, taking exception to a hard foul. Then Jermaine O’Neal got into it with Zaza Pachulia after Pachulia threw a shoulder into him while walking down the floor on a dead ball.

“I don’t think it affects us,’’ Rivers said of the dust-ups. “We get into them every game. People think we’re tough, so whenever we play they feel like they have to act tough back. I don’t know if either way that’s tough. It’s all silly.’’

Pachulia capped a 15-point, 10-rebound night with a pair of free throws that made it 86-81.

“He was the toughest dude on the floor,’’ Rivers said. “Banging everybody, got offensive rebounds, kept things alive.’’

The Celtics fell to 3-10 when playing the back half of a back-to-back on the road. They also fell to third place in the Eastern Conference behind Chicago and Miami.

“To me, it’s not about the back-to-backs,’’ Rivers said. “To me, everything is habit-forming, for the new guys especially, and for our veterans. [Thursday night] you saw that spirit, that’s nice, and today you saw the exact opposite. That can become a habit, too. We are just going to have to get out of it.’’

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

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