ATLANTA There’s nothing more dangerous than a wounded animal. So when a cadre of boisterous Atlanta Hawks fans with cowbells and costumes ranging from wigs to Spider-Man masks began chanting “Where’s Rondo,” many in Philips Arena felt an uneasy sense of dread.
Sure, having Celtics’ guard Rajon Rondo sitting at home after the NBA took exception to his extracurricular contact with an official was a benefit for Atlanta. But as happens so often in sports, the beleaguered team with the missing star found inspiration and a rallying point that led to victory.
The Celtics beat the Hawks 87-80 and evened the series 1-1 in impossibly large measure due to one man, Paul Peirce, who took over the game for Boston and led all scorers with 36 points.
But that box score doesn’t do it justice. Pierce dominated. In the final 14:52 he outscored the entire Hawks team 18 to 15.
“With Rondo being out I knew I had to step up my scoring,” Pierce said. “I can’t take all the credit. Kevin (Garnett) was great on defense; Keyon (Dooling) hit a couple of big threes to keep us in the game, so it was a good team win.”
Pierce failed to give props to the Hawks stars, Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, and Jeff Teague, who put up a total of seven points between them in the fourth quarter. Atlanta only scored 14 in the final period and blew what, at one point, was a nine-point lead in the third quarter.
“We just didn’t come up with the big plays,” Johnson said. “We were penetrating and kicking, but just weren’t taking the open shots for whatever reason. We have to go back and look at the shots.”
Smith went down with an injury in the fourth quarter, and Coach Larry Drew didn’t know about his status immediately after the game. So his lack of production down the stretch could be excused.
The other guys simply fell asleep at the switch. Teague, who’d had a tremendous night for two-and-a-half quarters, scored only two points in the final 15 minutes, and allowed the Celtics to dictate the tempo.
“We wanted to get out and run tonight and try to speed up the game,” Coach Drew said. “But we ended up getting into a more half court game and playing against a set defense. We dictated the pace of the game on Sunday, but tonight we just couldn’t run enough. In the fourth quarter, they just kept pushing us out further and further off our sweet spots, and couldn’t initiate our offense the way we wanted to.”
That analysis is wholly accurate, but only partially complete. The Hawks lost because the Celtics stepped up and took control of the tempo. But the Celtics stepped up and took control of the tempo because Atlanta, for all its outstanding players, didn’t have a go-to scorer down the stretch, and didn’t have a leader at any point in the second half.
Teague tried. In the first half, he showed speed, aggression, anticipation and great floor leadership. But in the final period, with the game on the line and Pierce having his way on the Celtics’ end of the floor, it was Johnson who needed to (and failed to) have an All Star performance.
“We just have to get Joe more open looks,” Teague said when asked what the Hawks needed to do to steal a win back now that the series heads to Boston. “We just have to be aggressive the whole game and we have to have that road mentality. We have to get the crowd out of the game, play under control and make shots.”
In the other locker room Doc Rivers felt great about heading home with one win and one loss. “We’ve won games this year without some of our key players,” Rivers said. “This is a tough-minded basketball team. Having a lot of veterans on our team helps with that. The only way we were going to win a game like that without Ray (Allen) and Rondo was if Paul (Peirce) had a game like this.”
Unfortunately for Larry Drew, he can’t say the same thing about any of the Hawks.