The best the Atlanta Hawks could do was smile. With each basket the shorthanded Celtics scored to keep the score tight on Friday, the Hawks simply grinned as if they found the Celtics, led by Avery Bradley, Keyon Dooling and Marquis Daniels, almost cute.
How adorable, the Hawks seemed to be saying, that you guys think you can hang with us.
The Hawks eventually finished off a 97-92 win, but their response to the Celtics' intensity revealed that they missed the point. Here's a news flash, Hawks: That cute squad, without five key regulars who were sitting due to injury or just simple rest, almost beat you on your home floor.
That the Hawks took a 1 1/2-game lead in the battle for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs was almost beside the point. Ray Allen, Mickael Pietrus and Rajon Rondo were nursing injuries. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce rested for the second time in four games. To top it off, center Greg Stiemsma did not play a minute of the second half. But led by Bradley's career-high 28 points, the Celtics cut the deficit to one point several times in the fourth quarter before the Hawks did just enough to win at the Highlight Factory.
If these teams meet in the first round of the playoffs, which seems probable now that the sixth-seeded Magic will have to continue without Dwight Howard, this game sent a message heading into the postseason. Even at far less than full strength, the Celtics had enough to push the Hawks to the edge. Imagine what Boston could do with its three future Hall of Famers, its All-Star point guard and its athletic wing man back in uniform.
Dooling shot a blistering 7-for-10 from the field for 17 points, his highest total since Dec. 27, and Daniels posted his second straight game of cool-headed efficiency with 12 points, eight rebounds, three assists and four steals. The Hawks got 30 points from Joe Johnson and a double-double of 19 points and 12 rebounds by Josh Smith, but no one else scored in double figures for the Hawks.
To be fair, the Hawks did not have their full roster available, either. Zaza Pachulia, who tore up the Celtics by averaging 14.5 points and 10 rebounds per game against Boston this season, missed the game with a sprained left foot. Center Al Horford, who is aiming for a playoff return from a pectoral injury, was also out.
But Horford has not really been a part of the team since Jan. 11 and Pachulia's strong play does not quite make him the equal of either one of Garnett, Pierce, Allen or Rondo, let alone all together. Injuries have ravaged the Hawks, as they have every team this season, but they still had Johnson and Smith on Friday. The Celtics had… Bradley, an ice-cold Brandon Bass and a bunch of guys who typically do not play in close games like this one.
This game does not mean the Celtics will sweep the Hawks if they meet in the playoffs, or that home-court advantage will not matter in a best-of-seven series. Still, it said a lot that the Hawks found it amusing that the Celtics were continuing to battle, while the Celtics were angry at themselves for not capitalizing on every opportunity.
On paper, the Hawks were the much better team. On the court, they were still better, but just barely.