BOSTON — The Celtics are not supposed to be able to keep up with the Hawks. The Boston players' legs are supposed to be too old, their offensive system too focused on grinding half-court sets, to stay even with the younger, faster and more athletic Atlanta players.
The Hawks were supposed to run at will against the Celtics, and if they succeeded, they would eventually run the Celtics all the way to elimination.
That was what the Hawks were supposed to do to the Celtics in their first-round playoff series, but in Game 4 on Sunday, the Celtics were the ones pushing the pace while the Hawks were the ones whose tongues were hanging. The Celtics doused the Hawks 101-79, and it was surprising that the final score was even that close.
"We were beaten in every phase of the game," Hawks head coach Larry Drew said. "It started the first six minutes of the game. We did not respond very well to the pressure, to the aggressiveness that they were playing with."
The game opened with a 17-9 blitzkrieg that featured five Atlanta turnovers in the first five minutes. Al Horford made a surprise return after missing almost four months with a left pectoral injury, but by the time he subbed in with 5:20 left in the first quarter, the Celtics had inflicted more damage than an ailing Horford could undo. The Celtics' lead grew to 13 points by the end of the frame and never fell below double digits for the rest of the game.
"Their team set the tone right from the jump ball," Horford said. "They set the tone early, and it seems we weren't able to recover."
With Doc Rivers running things and Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen on the roster, the Celtics are known for their execution in the half court. Had the Celtics merely been hitting every shot in sight — which they were — the game would have been just another easy victory for Boston. Their success creating fast break opportunities took Atlanta's primary would-be weapon, though, and flipped it back against the Hawks.
The Celtics forced 17 turnovers and scored 21 fast-break points on the Hawks, who seemed a step slower than the Celtics, particularly in the first half. A combination of unforgivable Hawks turnovers and lights-out shooting by the Celtics enabled Boston to take a 23-point lead at halftime. The Celtics shot 63 percent from the field in the first 24 minutes and did not show any signs of cooling off until Rivers began pulling his starters one by one in the second half.
"Boston has always been a good defensive team, particularly in the half court," Drew said. "We came into the series with a mindset of having to get up and down the floor, to push the basketball and to make it a game of transition. But it seemed like they were doing it to us."
As the teams return to Atlanta for what could be a series-clinching Game 5, the Celtics have won in three very different ways. They overcame the absences of two key players, Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen, in Game 2 due to a performance for the ages by Pierce. They outlasted the Hawks in an unsightly overtime brickfest in Game 3. And finally, they used a disruptive defense to outrun the Hawks in Game 4.