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Defense provides effective gateway

Celtics had shot when they changed Hawks’

By Mark Blaudschun
Globe Staff / May 11, 2012
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The message from the sold-out TD Garden crowd in the final seconds was loud and clear.

“De-Fense. De-Fense.’’

The Celtics didn’t need to be told twice. It was their mind-set all night.

It was their formula for success in an 83-80 series-clinching victory Thursday over the Hawks.

Pick any part of Game 6 and you could see how the Celtics advanced to the second round of the NBA playoffs.

Take that 5:30 stretch in the second quarter when the Celtics turned an 8-point deficit (28-20) into a 10-point lead (41-31), a surge keyed by defensive moves.

It was that way at the end, as the Celtics came up with stop after stop when they needed them most, like when Paul Pierce blocked Joe Johnson’s drive with about three seconds to play.

The Celtics’ defensive numbers tell part of the story - 11 blocked shots and 8 steals - but there were also countless pressures with the 24-second clock winding down.

There was in-your-face defense in the late going against the Hawks, who had stubbornly refused to fade.

“In this building, a bad shot is as good as a turnover,’’ said Atlanta coach Larry Drew, who watched his team take a series of them during the Celtics’ second-quarter run.

“They pressured us. They took us off our sweet spots. It made it tough and we didn’t respond. And if you don’t have proper floor balance, they can run you right out of the gym.’’

And while Kevin Garnett was the unquestioned offensive star of the game with his 28 points and 14 rebounds, both game highs, he also had 5 blocks and 3 steals.

But there was more than one defensive force for the Celtics.

In the second quarter, it was guard Avery Bradley moving over to harass Hawks guard Jeff Teague.

There was a bench in which role players such as Greg Stiemsma and Ryan Hollins came up with blocks and defensive stops and tipped balls just when the Hawks seemed like they were ready to make their own giant move.

Team defense was part of the formula throughout the six-game series, as the Hawks never scored as many as 88 points.

“It was a great team effort,’’ said Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo, who scored 14 points and handed out 8 assists, and also came up with a block and a steal.

Celtics coach Doc Rivers, having survived another scare, said he was happy to have escaped into the second round.

Style points at this stage of the year don’t count.

“We won. We move on,’’ he said.

But he knew and appreciated what he saw from every part of his team. So did his players, who saw the little things as well as the big picture.

Take Hollins, who played 18 minutes of quality time and scored only 2 points and pulled down only two rebounds, but was invaluable when Garnett needed a rest.

“He is one of the better defensive players in the league,’’ said Pierce. “Just what he shows, how happy he is. He had a huge offensive rebound there late in the game when Kevin missed [and keeping the ball alive, which allowed Garnett to make his game-winning basket].

“We just have those guys, no matter who it is at any given time.’’

On Thursday night, the Celtics - practically all of them - played de-Fense at just the right time, almost every time.

Mark Blaudschun can be reached at blaudschun@globe.com.

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