BOSTON — The Hawks probably should have known better. They coasted in here for Wednesday's game refreshed from a three-day layoff, rested and ready for the road-weary Celtics. Boston was coming off a track meet win over the formidable Heat the previous night, playing the second in a stretch of five games in six nights in five different cities.
Basically, the Celtics had the Hawks right where they wanted them.
With Rajon Rondo refusing to come out of the game for the entire second half and overtime, the Celtics outlasted the Hawks 88-86 on Wednesday in a matchup of potential first-round opponents in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Sixth man Ray Allen was scratched with a swollen right ankle. The team's only two healthy centers, Kevin Garnett and Greg Stiemsma, watched the end of the game from the bench after fouling out. Mickael Pietrus, in his first game back from a two-week layoff after sustaining a concussion, played more than 28 minutes. And at least three questionable calls in the fourth quarter and overtime threatened to turn an emotional victory for the Celtics into a devastating defeat.
Yet they won, as they have with regularity in the past three weeks.
"We've got great character," head coach Doc Rivers said. "Tough-minded group, they really are. They wanted to win that game so bad. You could see it in the way they played."
Rondo posted another unreal statistical line of 10 points, 20 assists and 10 rebounds, yet he committed six turnovers, his highest total since March 25. Paul Pierce made a clutch jump shot with more than three minutes left in overtime that would prove to be Boston's final points and the game-winner, but Pierce was an underwhelming 6-for-19 from the field in the game. The Celtics outrebounded the Hawks 56-39 overall and 15-6 on the offensive glass, but they turned that advantage into only four second-chance points.
"We didn't play well," Rivers acknowledged. "I mean, we just kept hanging in there."
The first four quarters were eventful enough, but things got wild in overtime. At the 2:43 mark, Garnett was whistled for an illegal screen, his sixth foul, and less than two minutes later Stiemsma picked up his fifth and sixth fouls on successive possessions
With the Celtics clinging to their two-point lead, Pierce attempted to dribble the clock down as far as possible. As Pierce made his move, though, his hand smacked into Josh Smith's face, drawing an offensive foul call that caused Rivers' jaw to nearly hit the floor.
For every call, the Celtics had an answer.
"It's just how it is," Rondo said. "You win some, you lose some. We kept fighting regardless of the other stuff out there. We stuck together and we followed through and got the win."
Brandon Bass, who has made four trips to the playoffs with the Mavericks and Magic, could not remember playing in anything like Wednesday's tilt.
"This whole atmosphere — the fans, the stadium, just that alone is different than any place I've been," Bass said. "And then my teammates, especially KG, just the passion he plays with, how everybody feeds off that, and the group of guys we've got. I've never been a part of anything like this. I'm grateful."