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Celtics 87, Bucks 74

Celtics win, head to Atlanta

Hawks host first two playoff games

By Frank Dell’Apa
Globe Staff / April 27, 2012
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Last week, the Celtics blew an opportunity to gain home-court advantage for the first round of the playoffs. But coach Doc Rivers will have a chance to find out if emphasis on health, rest, and rhythm has paid off when the Celtics visit Atlanta Sunday and Tuesday.

The Celtics have been conserving their energy and buying time for key players to recover from injury, a strategy which was costly in a 97-92 loss to the Hawks last Friday. A reserve-dominated Celtic team recovered for two wins this week, including an 87-74 decision over Milwaukee in the regular-season finale Thursday night at TD Garden.

Now, the Celtics will have two successive practice days, for the first time since before the All-Star break, which should help in preparation for the Hawks and possibly allow Ray Allen (ankle) and Greg Stiemsma (feet) to recuperate.

Both Allen and Stiemsma missed the Celtics’ win over the Bucks. But Kevin Garnett (hip flexor), Mickael Pietrus (knee), and Rajon Rondo (back spasms) returned to near full speed.

The Celtics (39-27) finished one game behind the Hawks, who defeated Dallas Thursday. The Celtics won the season series with Atlanta and would have had home-court advantage over the Hawks if their records were even.

“Well, we’d rather not, honestly,’’ Rivers said of opening on the road. “It would have been easier to open up at home but we’re just not.

“We had to make tough choices. You know, looking at Kevin, the way he ran [Thursday night], I was happy with the choice. He looked like his legs were back. And, so for me, that answered the question. Then, I looked up at the scoreboard and I was hoping Dallas was winning the game, so we could get everything.’’

But Rivers noted the Celtics had also squandered other winnable games, including an 84-79 defeat at Toronto April 13.

“Listen, we’ve earned the road, because of our record,’’ Rivers said. “You can look at games - we lost two in Toronto, we lost a lot of games early in the year. That is the reason we are on the road. So, we earned that. And, we’ll have to be ready for it.’’

The Celtics’ 66th season concluded with Avery Bradley leading the team in games played (64), Stiemsma the blocked-shots leader (85), and Rondo leading the league in assists (11.7 per game), the first Celtic to do so since Bob Cousy in the 1959-60 season.

Rondo upped his consecutive double-digit assist games to 24 before halftime against the Bucks, ending with 15 in returning after a three-game absence.

No Celtic starter played more than 25 minutes (Bradley and Rondo) and the game turned into a glorified practice session in the final minutes, Pietrus enlivening the crowd behind the Celtics’ bench by tossing a pile of towels to several spectators.

Bradley had 14 points and Paul Pierce totaled 12 points in 6:41 of playing time, although he aggravated a right big toe injury.

“We’re not sure if it was the tape, or whatever,’’ Rivers said of Pierce’s injury. “Because when he wanted to come back he just kept saying ‘I just needed to get it loose.’ So, we had a long discussion, because I had no interest in putting him back in.

“I mean, listen, we’re banged up. I’m hoping everybody is.’’

Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at f_dellapa@globe.com.

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