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Hawks couldn’t take the heat

Shots don’t drop after Celtics turn up defense

The Celtics’ Kevin Garnett beats Hawks forward Josh Smith to a fourth-quarter rebound, shortly before Smith left the game with a knee injury. The Celtics’ Kevin Garnett beats Hawks forward Josh Smith to a fourth-quarter rebound, shortly before Smith left the game with a knee injury. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
By Amalie Benjamin
Globe Staff / May 2, 2012
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ATLANTA - They had everything going for them: home court, an opponent without arguably its most important player, and an 11-point lead late in the third quarter. There were just 15 minutes left to play, as Atlanta looked to be closing in on a 2-0 lead in its Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.

And then it all fell apart, helping by suffocating defensive pressure from the Celtics, by shots not falling for the Hawks, and by an inability to close out a team not exactly known for its offense.

“We wanted to get out and run tonight and try to speed up the game, but we ended up getting into more of a half-court game and playing against a set defense,’’ coach Larry Drew said after his team dropped an 87-80 decision to the Celtics Tuesday night. “We dictated the pace of the game on Sunday, but tonight we just couldn’t run enough.

“In the fourth quarter, they just kept pushing us out further and further off of our sweet spots, and we couldn’t initiate our offense the way we wanted to.’’

The Celtics’ win leaves the series at 1-1, with Atlanta feeling like it missed an opportunity. The Celtics were without Rajon Rondo because of suspension and Ray Allen because of an ankle injury and still the Hawks couldn’t capitalize on their home court.

“Those guys made it tough for us down the stretch,’’ Hawks guard Willie Green said. “They made us take tough shots. Any time you take tough shots with a guy in your face, your percentages go down.

“We just have to do a better job of swinging the ball a little bit, and get a little bit better on our defensive rotations, and we’ll be all right.’’

It didn’t help that, with 4 minutes and 20 seconds left in the fourth quarter, the Hawks lost forward Josh Smith, who left with a sprained left knee. That left Atlanta without one of its most important pieces, especially around the basket. Already without its top two centers - Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia - the team was forced to play small when it didn’t want to.

“He is one of our go-to guys down the stretch,’’ Drew said of Smith. “We were missing all of the things that he brings to the table for us, especially down low. We tried to play small to match up to them and try to open up the floor a little bit, but we didn’t have that low-post presence that we needed.’’

The Hawks managed just 14 points in the fourth quarter, but the scoring problems started earlier than that. After Joe Johnson hit a 3-pointer with 3:08 to go in the third, the Hawks didn’t hit their next field goal until Johnson scored on a jumper with 7:26 left in the game, a stretch of more than seven minutes.

Atlanta missed its first five shots of the fourth quarter, and ended up making just 4 of 19 in the final period.

“We were penetrating and kicking, we just weren’t taking the shots that were open,’’ said Johnson, who led the Hawks with 22 points but hit only 7 of 17 shots. “We were passing up a lot of shots for whatever reason, and we were getting ourselves in difficult situations offensively.’’

The refrain was the same all over the locker room. The Celtics made the plays. The Celtics were more aggressive. The Hawks couldn’t get their shots to fall, couldn’t make things happen.

“They kind of had the momentum,’’ Johnson said, as the Hawks watched their 11-point lead melt away at the end of the third quarter and start of the fourth. “We just never recovered.’’

Now, the Hawks face heading to Boston having given up momentum as well as home-court advantage. They know they need to get at least one of the two games at the TD Garden, and so they’re working on having “that road mentality,’’ as Jeff Teague put it.

“It’s still a series, man,’’ Johnson said. “We’ve got our hands full now.’’

Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.

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