Unlikely though it may be, the Celtics indeed put together their first winning streak in 11 games with a gritty comeback against the Hawks. After trailing by as many as 19 points, the Celtics used a massive third quarter in which they outscored the Hawks 33-9 to pull into the lead for good.
Rajon Rondo had a triple-double of 14 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists and Paul Pierce came within a rebound of a double-double with 26 points and nine rebounds. Lou Williams had 21 points in the first half but cooled off considerably after that, managing just one bucket the rest of the way to finish with 28 points.
Fourth quarter, 2:00, Celtics 85-79: This is a dangerous time for the Celtics. They expended so much energy getting back into this game, taking the lead and building it up, that they may be huffing and puffing down the stretch. Rivers took a timeout at what amounts to the two-minute warning to stress to his players: Keep it up.
Fourth quarter, 3:10, Celtics 85-74: The Celtics are shooting better, sure, but their improved accuracy is not why they have surged into a lead they do not appear ready to relinquish. Their hustle has been the difference. Like Rondo, who went to the floor to secure a steal in the third quarter, Pierce dove to the deck to retrieve a loose ball and toss it to Bass, who swished a jumper right as the shot clock expired.
The Celtics have not just outplayed the Hawks in the second half. They have outworked them.
Fourth quarter, 5:57, Celtics 79-72: There is still a lot of time left, but the Celtics’ lead just got a lot more comfortable. Korver picked up his sixth and final foul, eliminating the Hawks’ top 3-point threat and landing a blow to their comeback hopes. Williams, however, is still hanging around.
Fourth quarter, 8:42, Celtics 79-68: We’ve heard of “white-outs” at NBA games, but we’ve never heard of “green-outs.” We only assume that’s the theme of the Hawks’ night, because otherwise there are a whole lot of Celtics fans in the stands.
The Hawks’ home arena has erupted as the Celtics push their lead to nine points. Rondo found Garnett ahead of the defense for a two-handed dunk that gave anyone in TD Garden South a reason to cheer.
Less highlight-worthy, but just as crucial, has been the Celtics’ work on the offensive glass. They have 15 offensive rebounds, with Sullinger leading the way with four.
End of third quarter, Celtics 71-62: It took the Hawks more than five minutes to score their first basket of the second half. After that, they got another one just 50 seconds later — and then failed to make another basket for the rest of the quarter.
The Celtics lived out coach Doc Rivers’ instructions to not allow their bad offense to dictate their defense. Boston’s defensive pressure not only held Atlanta to 2-for-14 shooting, it also forced seven turnovers and enabled Pierce and Rondo to create excellent shots against a scrambling Hawks defense.
Pierce scored 17 points on 6-for-9 shooting in the frame and Rondo had four assists, but both did things that do not show up in the box score. Pierce set a screen on the break to create an open jumper for Rondo and Rondo sold out to steal the ball twice on pure hustle.
Third quarter, 2:40, Celtics 63-60: Rondo had a listless first half, but once Pierce started to pick up the pace, Rondo had no trouble catching the energetic fever. Rondo went to the deck to steal the ball from Williams, then found Bass for a jumper at the other end to give the Celtics their largest lead of the game.
Bradley has also been impressive during this run. His shot has still not returned, but he showed no fear in taking his next shot after a jump shot attempt rimmed out. Bradley’s aggressiveness paid off when the next one swished.
Sullinger tapped home a lob from Rondo to give the Celtics their first lead since the first quarter, and they have continued to run while the Hawks have looked shell-shocked.
Third quarter, 7:29, Hawks 54-52: Where is Lou Williams when the Hawks need him?
Sweet Lou is on the court, but he has not been able to stop the bleeding for Atlanta, which has scored one point since halftime. The Celtics took off on a 14-1 run to begin the third quarter with Pierce leading the way with his scoring and screen-setting. Now it is a two-point game for the first time since the 7:46 mark in the first quarter.
Third quarter, 11:01, Hawks 53-42: The Celtics opened up the second half by scoring two straight baskets in the first 52 seconds. That apparently qualifies as an unforgivable run to give up to the Celtics, because Atlanta coach Larry Drew wanted a timeout immediately to correct his team’s failures on defense.
Halftime, Hawks 53-38: For all the rebounding enthusiasts out there, the Celtics outrebounded the Hawks in the first half. Congratulations on your moral victory.
For the rest of you who worry more about, you know, which team scores more points, the news is not as rosy. The Celtics let the Hawks shoot 53 percent from the field and 47 percent from beyond the arc — both percentages that were well above Boston’s own 39-percent mark.
Pierce is 2-for-9 from the field, while Rondo has four assists but also four turnovers. Garnett has eight points, but with three fouls he has the look of somebody trying to do everything, as usual.
In addition to Williams — who was sort of hot in the first half — the Hawks got 13 points from Teague, whose speed has given every Celtics player trouble — even Bradley.
Second quarter, 2:03, Hawks 51-36: Williams has already put together a solid game’s worth of work, but he does not look ready to call it a night. The streaky shooter has 21 points on 8-of-9 shooting, and the Celtics would consider it a victory to even be within single digits at the half.
Second quarter, 7:40, Hawks 39-23: Just last season, point guard Jeff Teague was perceived to be one of the weak points for the Hawks. Now he is one of their most unpredictable weapons. After Rondo had an ill-advised crosscourt bounce pass intercepted, Teague showed his All-Star counterpart how it is done with a pretty bounce pass on the break, just past the fingertips of Pierce, to Josh Smith for a jam.
Second quarter, 8:52, Hawks 34-23: As rough as the road has been for the Celtics lately, nobody has had it rougher than Green. Green has been called everything from “lazy” to “lacking heart” to “the worst free agent signing of the offseason,” none of which are entirely true. Yet there is little doubt Green has disappointed thus far by averaging only 9.6 points per game.
In his first eight minutes of action against the Hawks, Green has shown signs of bringing the aggressiveness that is pivotal to his game. He took it to the hoop for a layup and then drew a shooting foul. He is only 1-for-3, but if he keeps going to the basket good things are bound to happen.
Second quarter, 10:21, Hawks 31-22: Garnett tends to get into opponents’ heads, but Zaza Pachulia may be one of the few who can return the favor. Garnett occasionally seems a little too eager to show up the Hawks forward, and it nearly turned into something unnecessary. Garnett went to the floor, and as he grappled with Pachulia for the ball, he swung his legs and had to be separated. If that foot had connected, Garnett could have been making an early exit for the second straight night.
End of first quarter, Hawks 31-18: They may trail by 13 points, but that unlucky number comes with one bit of good fortune for the Celtics: They finally have more points than Williams.
Garnett did the honors with a jump shot from the top of the key with seven seconds to go in the quarter. The opening 12 minutes were not the best the Celtics have played, offensively or defensively. They allowed the Hawks, who we mentioned are a great shooting team, to go 4-for-7 from beyond the arc. Meanwhile, the Celtics shot just 8-for-22 and did not get the line — then again, we predicted that would be the case.
First quarter, 2:55, Hawks 23-12: At some point in this game, the Celtics will finally outscore Williams. At this rate, though, they might have to wait until at least the second quarter.
Williams has kept up his hot start by hitting his first six shots. His only miss has come from the free throw line. The Celtics are doing a poor job of protecting the 3-point line. Korver, Williams and Teague have all been left way too open already.
First quarter, 5:50, Hawks 15-10: Williams has made his money mostly as a sixth man, but Devin Harris’ foot injury has forced the Hawks to use last offseason’s free agent signee as the starting two-guard.
The early returns in this game have been good for the Hawks. Williams has 11 of Atlanta’s 15 points and is a perfect 3-for-3 from deep. He has outscored the Celtics all by himself, even if the Celtics are doing work on the glass. Paul Pierce wrestled for four offensive rebounds on one possession, although it was to no avail, and Boston is winning the rebounding battle early 10-2.
6:20 p.m.: Normally, a team with two high-quality big men would figure to own the paint, draw fouls at a decent rate and make its living with a physical, imposing game.
Those sort of teams do not have Josh Smith.
Even with the presence of Smith and Al Horford, the Hawks do most of their damage from the outside, and surprisingly draw very few fouls. They draw the fourth-fewest fouls of any team in the NBA, and thanks to outside gunners like Kyle Korver and Lou Williams, they have attempted the eighth-most 3-pointers. Smith, with his propensity to fire away from deep, contributes to the high number as well.
Avery Bradley, Rajon Rondo and Courtney Lee therefore could be pivotal once again. All three guards played superb defense in Friday’s win over the Pacers, and the Celtics may need a similar effort to win their second straight game.
The projected starters appear below.
10 a.m. ET: The Celtics hit up the highlight factory on Saturday, but highlights are far from their minds right now. After snapping a four-game losing streak Friday with a win over the Pacers, the Celtics will take a win any way they can get it, highlight-free or otherwise.
For the Celtics (15-17), who have not won consecutive games since Dec. 12, this is an opportunity to finally get that win streak they have been chasing. For the Hawks (20-11), it is another chance to keep doing what they have been doing — that is, winning with regularity over the teams below them in the standings.
Atlanta is the definition of a team that beats the teams it is supposed to beat. Every one of the Hawks’ losses, save a November defeat against the Cavaliers and Friday’s one-point loss to the Pistons, came against clubs in the playoff hunt. That would seem to make the Celtics fodder for the Hawks, if the Celtics are what their record says.
Join us for updates and analysis during the game, which tips off at 7 p.m. ET.