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Bench players didn’t take this one sitting down

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / May 2, 2012
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ATLANTA - Just when the faithful began to believe the Big Three Era was coming to an end, with Rajon Rondo at a local hotel and Ray Allen immaculately dressed on the bench, unable to play for the third week because of bone spurs in his right ankle, what was left of the Celtics responded with a stunning final 15 minutes Tuesday night against the suddenly vulnerable Hawks at Philips Arena.

Coach Doc Rivers used nearly his entire bench and then rode the backs of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Avery Bradley as the Celtics stormed back from an 11-point deficit for one of their more impressive performances in recent memory in an 87-80 Game 2 win in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The series is tied at a game apiece and resumes Friday at TD Garden.

Rivers promised his team would be prepared, and while execution was an issue for the first three quarters, the Celtics used Pierce and a bunch of helpers to stifle the Hawks defensively in the second half.

Without their best 3-point shooter and the league’s leading assist man, the Celtics went back to their defensive principles, holding the Hawks to 11 field goals after halftime. Atlanta’s starting five was a combined 7-for-31 shooting after the break, unable to get off a clean shot against a swarm of double teams.

Atlanta, on the verge of perhaps sealing the game with one final push, shut down after taking a 65-54 lead with 3:08 left in the third following a Joe Johnson layup. By the fourth quarter, the defense that Rivers has stressed over the past five years was in full effect. The Hawks were disheveled and Johnson went back to the dribbler and “iso-Joe’’ that made Atlanta so beatable in previous years.

While Pierce was the catalyst with 36 points, including a critical 3-pointer (his first of the series after the Celtics missed their first 19), the reserves had one of their better games of the season. Rivers depended on Marquis Daniels for key minutes down the stretch and he helped bottle up Johnson, who scored one field goal in the fourth quarter.

“Our reserves played a major role tonight,’’ Rivers said. “It was definitely a team win, with so many guys pitching in. I called a timeout in the fourth quarter right after another timeout, simply to give our guys some rest. I didn’t actually have anything to tell them. We’ve won games this year without some of our key players. This is a tough-minded basketball team, and having a lot of players on your team helps with that.’’

The effort was there. Rivers promised that his team would be ready for Game 2 even without Rondo and Allen. But what the brass thought it would have for perhaps the final postseason run of the Big Three and what was actually out there Tuesday night were completely different.

Team president Danny Ainge filled his bench with reserves who have played meaningful minutes in previous stops. While Rivers would have preferred shortening his rotation and going with eight players, he used Ryan Hollins, Daniels, Sasha Pavlovic and Keyon Dooling as early as the second quarter.

Rivers has maintained an admiration for his bench all season, although he has been hesitant to play Daniels, Pavlovic, and Hollins significant minutes. Because Mickael Pietrus was erratic and he had to give Garnett and Brandon Bass some rest, Rivers was practically forced to throw his little-used players out there as an experiment.

While players such as Daniels and Pavlovic have spent the season largely playing in garbage time, they played with confidence Tuesday night, even when they had little reason to because of past performance.

“It’s definitely personal [motivation], there’s no babysitting going on, he’s not looking over your shoulder,’’ Dooling said about Rivers’s treatment of the bench. “Doc, he allows us to be men. Ultimately in this game, if you are not ready, not only do you hurt yourself, you hurt your family, you hurt your team. You hurt the organization. So it’s up to us. We’ve got a great locker room. We keep each other up, even if guys are playing bad.

“[Rivers is] willing to search for lineups. He’s an analyst, too, by trade, and so he really understand each person’s strengths, weaknesses, when he can use them, what he can get from them, he really knows personalities and how to manage them. And that’s one of his strengths. That’s what separates him.’’

With Allen out, Pietrus needed to produce, but he sat nearly the final two quarters at the end of the bench after Rivers pulled him following a silly lead pass on a three-on-one fast break. Pietrus, who has been one of the team’s biggest surprises this season and has drawn praise from Rivers all season, slumped with a towel over his head for nearly a full quarter.

After a pep talk from Allen and a long rest during which he did some soul-searching, Pietrus returned to play strong defense in the fourth quarter. He ended up scoreless, but Rivers may have saved his psyche by displaying confidence in him when it mattered. And the players gave confidence to each other Tuesday night, a season-long habit that has been critical to keeping everyone engaged.

“What y’all don’t understand, I don’t know how they do it in Atlanta or I don’t know how they do it in New York, Chicago, LA, but here, we deal with each other,’’ Garnett said. “We fuel confidence within each other. I think it’s important to fuel confidence to our teammates, especially those guys who don’t get to play. We don’t lack any confidence here. A lot of guys here have a lot of experience, we like to sort of make sure our young guys get some of that and have them around, continuously talking to them, pushing them.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com.

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