The win was in the books, but the Celtics' locker room was missing the joy that one would expect from a team that had just won an overtime game in the playoffs. For the most part, the Celtics did not express much emotion at all, aside from relief that it was over.
The Celtics defeated the Atlanta Hawks 90-84 in Friday's Game 3 to take a 2-1 lead in their first-round Eastern Conference playoff series, but for the third time in this series, it was not pretty. The offense — which has comes in spurts with no real consistency — remained spotty, but for the second straight game, it was enough.
"It wasn't pretty," Paul Pierce said. "But who said it has to be pretty? At the end of the day, we have to win four games and we've won two."
The Celtics are halfway to eliminating the Hawks and advancing to the conference semifinals, although it took a grinding effort to get there. They shot less than 40 percent from the field in regulation before improving in overtime, and they are now shooting 7-for-38 from 3-point territory in the series.
Without any sustained shooting threat, the Celtics had to rely on timely shots to grind out Friday's win. After Hawks point guard Jeff Teague, who is having an impressive series, tied the game on a fastbreak dunk early in the fourth quarter, Boston went on a 16-5 run that included 3-pointers by Pierce and Mickael Pietrus. The Celtics ended up needing every bit of that 11-point lead when Atlanta came back to force overtime.
"At the end of the day, we won the game," Pietrus said. "That was our main focus. I know that we didn't play extremely well, but that's playoff games. Sometimes they are going to take your stuff away, but you have to deal with it and get the best out of it."
One of the biggest contributors to the Celtics' shooting woes was their midrange game, which their offense relies on so heavily. They shot 11-for-36, or 30.5 percent, from 10 to 23 feet in Game 3, according to HoopData, compared to 41 percent from those locations during the regular season. The Celtics attempted more shots from 16 to 23 feet during the regular season than any team except the Bobcats and Sixers, neither of whom was noted for their offensive efficiency.
As a result, Celtics coach Doc Rivers was forced to ask Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo to play more than 40 minutes, and Ray Allen played almost 37 minutes in his first game action in almost a month. Rivers could not afford to rest his most reliable offensive and defensive personnel — the Celtics needed everything they could get, and the coach was not pleased with the toll inflicted on those four players.
Simply put, the Celtics need their long two-pointers to fall, otherwise the defense has to assume the load, as it did Friday. And playing defense that hard for that long takes a level of mental focus that is difficult to maintain over 48-plus minutes.
"You have to get stops and then you have to turn around and execute on the offensive end," said Garnett, who anchored some unconventional lineups on defense for 42 minutes in Game 3. "Then when you're not shooting the ball well, that probably means there's going to be more work on the defensive end. We're a mentally strong team. We've just got to get better on offense, but we'll go back, fix that, watch tape and try to make adjustments."
The Celtics gladly took the win, because it was better than the alternative. Until more of their shots find the net, though, there will be a lot of weary limbs wearing green.
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