End of game, Celtics win 79-76: For some inexplicable reason, Rondo let Johnson get open to drain a 3 with 11.8 seconds on the clock to pull Atlanta within a single point. It gave the Hawks a chance to tie on the final possession even after two free throws by Allen.
On that possession, at least, Rondo stayed home on Johnson. The Celtics forced someone other than Johnson to beat them, and it paid off when Teague airballed the potential game-tying shot.
Fourth quarter, :28.9, Celtics 76-71: Johnson was in prime position to make this a one-possession game, but the red-shot sharpshooter instead attempted a pass that was stolen by Rondo.
Pietrus was fouled on the inbounds and hit one of two free throws.
Fourth quarter, 1:02, Celtics 75-71: The Hawks set a pair of highly questionable picks at the top of the key, and both plays netted them points.
Pachulia seemed to lean into Pietrus on a screen, but Pietrus was whistled for the foul. Pachulia hit both free throws.
After Allen missed a long, falling 3-point attempt, Rondo spun off a Teague screen when Teague seemed to flip out his elbow as the Celtics guard went by. Teague's pick, legal or not, helped free Johnson for his third 3-pointer of the game, closing the gap to four points.
Fourth quarter, 2:44, Celticcs 75-63: As well as the Celtics have played, the Hawks did not exactly play terribly. Hinrich hit a baseline jumper to answer Allen's last 3, and Pachulia made an athletic move to score an and-one layup after Garnett put the Celtics' lead back to 15 points with a long jumper.
The Celtics, for once, were on their way to outrebounding a team. They held a 40-37 advantage in that statistic with less than three minutes to go.
Fourth quarter, 4:28, Celtics 73-58: The game is easier when you defend, but it's way, way easier when you shoot the way the Celtics did over the last two minutes.
The Celtics defended like fiends after a jumper by Johnson brought the Hawks within two points. Rondo hit a bank shot and Bass hit one of his patented jumpers before things exploded for the C's.
Allen was left wide open in the corner for a 3-pointer, then Pietrus was left open at the top of the key for another triple. Allen finished off the 13-0 run by fading off a Bass screen for a straight-on trey as the shot clock wound down.
Fourth quarter, 5:56, Celtics 64-58: Nearly 36 minutes of hideous basketball gave way to pretty basketball, and the Celtics just played prettier than the Hawks.
Pierce was at the center of the surge, finding Garnett way ahead of the pack for a dunk to help the Celtics stretch their lead back to four after Atlanta had come back to tie. Johnson also got into his groove with two fadeaway jumpers in the early going of the fourth.
Fourth quarter, 9:31, Celtics 56-51: Getting his fourth personal foul appeared to energize Pierce. Ever since getting whistled for a non-shooting foul, the Celtics captain did not seem as sluggish as he did in the first half.
Pierce made a pinpoint lob pass to Pietrus on an inbounds, leading to a one-handed slam by Air France, to give the Celtics the lead for the first time since the first quarter. Pierce followed up with a pair of jumpers to stretch the Celtics' lead.
Pierce, Bass and Stiemsma all have four personal fouls, which could become a factor as this comes down to the wire.
End of third quarter, Hawks 51-50: The Celtics don't often look completely confused on inbounds plays, but they looked pretty flummoxed on the final play of the third quarter.
They looked so bad, it might have been on purpose.
Pietrus and Allen ran around like they didn't know the play, and Rondo was directing traffic on the inbounds even as the five-second clock was running. Finally, after Rondo faked a lob to Garnett, Allen flashed over for a catch-and-shoot 3 that tickled the twine after the buzzer sounded.
Maybe the Celtics really were mixed up, or maybe the mix-up was intentional to get the Hawks to drop their guard.
Third quarter, 3:34, Hawks 47-45: Allen came off a Garnett screen for a 3-pointer, and Allen's second basket of the game gave the Celtics a momentary bounce in their step. Pierce and Stiemsma executed a perfect pick-and-roll for a layup by Stiemsma to pull within two points.
Third quarter, 5:46, Hawks 47-40: The Celtics have been getting on a lot of teams' nerves lately, or vice versa. Bass picked up a flagrant foul for a hard, two-handed foul on Pachulia, leading Teague to shout loudly in Ray Allen's face after the Hawks guard dunked on the Celtics two-guard a little less than a minute later.
Teague picked up a technical foul on the play, which gave Atlanta an eight-point lead, but the message was sent. By speeding up, the Hawks may be able to run away from the Celtics.
Halftime, Hawks 33-31: The Celtics may have the Hawks right where they want them.
The Celtics ground play to a halt against the Hawks, who aren't a fast-paced team but like to move slightly faster than the pace played in the first half, which was somewhere between "snail" and "turtle." The Celtics went 13-for-37 from the field, and even that was better than the Hawks' 14-for-41 mark.
The Good: Rajon Rondo should have been able to do whatever he wanted against Jeff Teague and Kirk Hinrich, and he essentially did. Boston's point guard had eight points and six assists in the first half. … Kevin Garnett was effective in getting into Josh Smith's head. Garnett allowed the Hawks' power forward to hit a few early jumpers, assuring that Smith would fall in love with his outside shot for the rest of the first half. Garnett scored eight points and grabbed five rebounds while Smith missed four of his last five shots in the half to enter halftime with eight points. … Greg Stiemsma recorded three blocked shots before causing some concern with a possible injury to his right hand. The trainer appeared to stitch up a cut on Stiemsma's finger, so the injury did not appear serious.
The Bad: Paul Pierce missed four of his five shots for four points and committed three fouls and three turnovers. His opposite number at the 3, Joe Johnson, also had a mediocre first half with six points on 3-for-9 shooting with three turnovers.
The So-so: Mickael Pietrus gave Boston a dozen decent minutes, draining a 3-pointer and taking down five defensive rebounds. He missed his three other field goal attempts, though, and played spotty defense despite a solid, fundamental block of a Tracy McGrady jump shot.
Second quarter, 1:38, Hawks 31-27: Greg Stiemsma kept checking out his hand. Rivers probably wishes Stiemsma would stop doing that. With season-ending maladies for Chris Wilcox and Jermaine O'Neal, the Celtics cannot afford to lose anyone else from their frontcourt rotation.
Second quarter, 4:40, game tied 25-25: One explanation for the low score in the first quarter was that Joe Johnson, the Hawks' most prodigious scorer, did not score a point. Johnson got ahead of the defense to score a layup nearly eight minutes into the second quarter for his first basket of the game.
Johnson, who spent 48 games in Boston as a rookie before leaving as part of the deal that netted the Celtics Rodney Rogers and Tony Delk, should forever be one player Celtics fans feel some guilt over letting get away.
Second quarter, 8:07, Hawks 21-17: There's a new rule in Atlanta: Nobody under the age of 30 is allowed to score.
As much as that rule would benefit the Celtics, it wasn't actually in affect. It just seemed that way. Garnett (35), Pietrus (30) and Jerry Stackhouse (37) scored seven of the nine points scored in the opening four minutes of the second quarter. Pachulia, at 28, was the only whippersnapperto get into the scoring column.
End of first quarter, Hawks 15-12: The interior of the rim might be the safest place in the building at Philips Arena. Very little seemed to puncture the cylinder in the first half as these teams combined for 27 points.
During a timeout, Doc Rivers and Tracy McGrady had a quick conversation and a laugh on the sideline. Rivers coached McGrady for more than three seasons in Orlando, and if injuries to McGrady and Grant Hill had not derailed a potentially strong Magic team, who knows if Rivers ever would have come to Boston or if the Celtics would have ever won the 2008 title? Would Paul Pierce still be a Celtic?
First quarter, 5:48, game tied 8-8: This pace was much more to the Celtics' liking. After two games played at a breakneck pace, the C's were able to slow things down in Atlanta.
If the Hawks are willing to overlook their obvious speed and youth advantages at three of the five starting positions, the Celtics won't complain. The C's also won't complain about Josh Smith's shot selection. Smith, who loves his outside shot as much as a 6-foot-9 player can, took five shots in the first five-plus minutes, all at least 18 feet away from the hoop. He hit three of the five, but Boston would rather see him take those than to use his size and strength to get to the hoop.
7:30 p.m.: This game marks the Celtics' first up-close look at Ivan Johnson, the 27-year-old undrafted rookie who has become a fan favorite in Atlanta.
Johnson is kind of like Jeremy Lin, if Lin had a reputation for being uncoachable and having a bad attitude, and if Lin held a lifetime ban from the Korean Basketball Association for making an obscene gesture to a fan.
OK, so they're nothing alike at all.
Johnson's reputation kept him out of the league until this year, when he score 13 points against the Heat in his third game. Less than two weeks later he posted a double-double in a win over the Timberwolves, and he is now a regular member of Atlanta's rotation.
Fortunately for the Celtics, hungry and energetic frontcourt players who can attack the basket and crash the glass have not hurt the C's at all this season. (Yes, that was sarcasm.)
7:15 p.m.: Unlike Celtics fans, Hawks fans were not too keen on losing their starting center for the season.
Al Horford was limited to 11 games after suffering a left pectoral injury Jan. 11. He had surgery and will miss the remainder of the season.
Zaza Pachulia, a 6-foot-11 Georgian (as in the country, not the state), is serviceable but is no Horford. Pachulia has registered double-digit rebounds in 10 of his last 12 games and averages 7.4 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. Alongside athletic power forward Josh Smith, those stats might be good enough to give Kevin Garnett and the C's trouble in the paint.
The projected starters are listed below.
7:05 p.m.: The Celtics finally received confirmation of what they have assumed for weeks when it was announced Monday, that center Jermaine O'Neal will miss the remainder of the season.
The 33-year-old big man, who was never as bad when he was on the floor as many Celtics fans seemed to think, has a chronic degenerative wrist condition. The injury was aggravated in a game against the Mavericks on Feb. 20, and O'Neal spent the last month weighing whether to undergo therapy and continue playing or to have season-ending surgery. O'Neal's wrist did not respond to immobilization and physical therapy, the team announced.
This could save Marquis Daniels' spot on the roster. The Celtics are in the market for big man depth but they are at the roster limit, and Daniels was reportedly a candidate to be let go to open a roster spot. If the Celtics negotiate a buyout with with O'Neal, Daniels could remain.
8 a.m.: The Celtics play in their third time zone in the last three games as they try to shake a two-game losing streak.
The Atlanta Hawks, who the C's are chasing for the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, play host at the Highlight Factory. Despite going 2-4 in their last six games, the Hawks managed to build their lead in the standings thanks to Boston's own inconsistent play.
Injuries could have decimated the Hawks, and for a while it looked like the loss of Al Horford would doom them. But mercurial power forward Josh Smith has carried the Hawks, mostly because those infuriating 20-footers and 3-pointers he loves to shoot have been falling for him. Smith has taken 28 triples in nine March games after taking 37 in the first 35 games of the year. No matter how he's done it, Smith is averaging 25.2 points in the month.
Join us for updates and analysis during the game, which is set to tip off at 7:30 p.m.