Not finest performance by drama club
ATLANTA - The Celtics never do anything without drama. They never do anything without generating a little stress and anxiety.
What we have counted on the Celtics to accomplish the past five years is to execute down the stretch, to put themselves in the position to succeed with the game on the line. While Paul Pierce or Ray Allen may not always sink that decisive shot, the Celtics have prided themselves on being experts in late-game situations.
In Tuesday night’s 87-86 loss in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals at Philips Arena, the Celtics’ late-game execution was wretched. The game ended with Rajon Rondo, after stealing an inbounds pass with nine seconds left, trying to pass when he needed to shoot. But Rondo isn’t solely to blame for the Hawks forcing a Game 6 Thursday in Boston.
He single-handedly brought the Celtics back from their stupor to take a 4-point lead in the fourth quarter. But when Pierce airballed a jumper with 18.9 seconds left with the Celtics trailing by a point, no one on the court apparently realized they were not out of fouls, meaning they needed to foul twice to get the Hawks to the line.
They waited 7.7 seconds until the ball was passed to Josh Smith before Allen fouled him. And while they fully expected Smith to step to the line, the Hawks called timeout to prepare for another inbounds play.
Rondo saved the embarrassment for a few moments by stealing a bounce pass headed for Joe Johnson, and racing up the court for perhaps the series-clinching basket. But the Celtics resembled one of those youth teams that compete at halftime at TD Garden, racing up the court in chaos because they lacked a timeout. The only thing missing was the play-by-play from Coach Willie Maye.
The Celtics cannot be blamed for taking the Hawks for granted. They just played a very inconsistent game - and were awful down the stretch.
“We signaled to foul and our guys decided to try to go for a steal first,’’ coach Doc Rivers said. “They didn’t understand we had a foul to give. I told them after the game, we talk about it every night, every day in practice, end-of-the-game execution is going to win and lose playoff games for you. And you think about that seven extra seconds we would have had, that doesn’t mean we make a shot but you never know. We would have extra time. And we didn’t have it.’’
The Celtics didn’t have it on many levels Tuesday night as they constantly missed open shots, and the biggest culprit was Pierce, who tried to return to the game with 7:16 left and be the savior again. But he missed a backhanded layup and then followed with the airball that ruined the Celtics’ chances of ending the series and getting some much-needed rest.
“We definitely squandered away an opportunity,’’ Pierce said. “Tip your caps to the Hawks. It’s a make-or-miss league; we had our opportunities down the stretch.’’
Perhaps equally disappointing as the ending was the Celtics’ inability to pounce on the Hawks when they were flat to begin the game. Despite the 8 p.m. start, Philips Arena was about 60 percent full at the opening tip and the Hawks lacked energy and passion. The Celtics scored 11 of the game’s first 14 points and their defense was stifling, but Atlanta rallied in Game 5 in the same way it won Game 1, with long-range shooting.
Four consecutive 3-pointers to end the first half gave Atlanta a 3-point lead before Rondo’s buzzer-beating trey to end the half, and Al Horford led a third-quarter charge that built a 12-point lead before the Celtics decided to rally with a 19-3 run. The Hawks responded with a 14-3 stretch, and the Celtics stormed back with a 7-0 run.
It was a tennis match. But when the Celtics needed to come through, they faltered with a couple of mental miscues.
The only thing Rondo can be blamed for in that final sequence is racing down the court when his older and slower teammates were slow to react after the steal. He dribbled into a corner and couldn’t bail the Celtics out with a dramatic jumper. Unlike Game 4, when the Celtics’ mistakes were camouflaged by a stellar shooting night, they seemingly paid for all of their errors. Allen came off the bench to score 15 points but lamented two missed free throws in the first half.
The Celtics didn’t overlook the Hawks for a potential second-round matchup with the 76ers, but they weren’t as prepared as they needed to be either. And it cost them.
“A couple of things didn’t go our way down the stretch, it was very frustrating,’’ Allen said. “We kind of put ourselves in that predicament. We battled back and had a couple of defensive breakdowns down the stretch. The end was just unfortunate. If we would have had one more timeout, that would have been a different scenario. We gotta go back to the drawing board.’’