By Shirley Coshatt
The Celtics came out strong to start the game. Atter shooting their way to a 16-3 lead in the first three minutes, it seemed as though Game 3 had indeed served as a wake up call for them. Then, the momentum swung back to the home team, driven in part by the two fouls apiece picked up by Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo. The Celtics’ shooting then went cold. After starting the game at 6-7, they then went 3-10 and allowed the Hawks to go on a 9-0 run. Garnett finally hit a jumper to temprarily stop the bleeding but the kids from Atlanta counterpunched again and tied the game at 24. By the end of the quarter, the Hawks led 29-24.
The Celtics started the second with a lineup of Leon Powe, James Posey, Ray Allen, Big Baby Davis and Sam Cassell. The Hawks built further on their lead, which grew to 37-29 with 8:01 left in the half. Garnett then drove to the hoop and caught ZaZa Pachulia with an elbow. Pachulia took offense and went none-to-nose with the Celtics’ star, throwing in an apparent head butt for good measure. To Garnett’s credit, he backed off and kept his arms to his side, but Sam Cassell and Joe Johnson then became engaged until the officials and coaching stafgs interceded. Garnett was assessed a technical for the elbow he threw and Pachulia, Cassell, and Johnson were all given technicals for their part in the fray. Later, they showed film of Kendrick Perkins and Marvin Williams both stepping one step on the court before being pushed back by the coaches. It is possible that the league may suspend them for that one step but that decision will come later. After the technicals, the Celtics crawled back to within 3 as the score at the half WAs 51-48.
The Celtics started off strong in the third quarter as Garnett quickly converted a layup, giving Boston their first lead since the first quarter, at 55-53 with nine minutes to go in the third. It seemed as though the Celtics had at last righted their ship as they began to play consistent defense again and convert with flow on offense. They ended the third quarter with a 75-65 lead.
It didn’t take long for that hard-fought lead to evaporate. The Hawks started the quarter on an 8-0 run and kept coming at the Celtics until they eventually tied the game at 79 and then took the lead for good at 81-79 with seven minutes left in the third. At that point, The Joe Johnson Show was officially underway. The former Celtic (as you’ve heard roughly 58,000 by now) outright dominated the team that drafted him. If there were any lingering doubts about Johnson as a bona fide star, they disappeared with his fourth quarter performance last night. The Celtics simply had no answer for him on defense and could not match his production at the other end of the floor. In the rare instances when the Hawks missed in the final frame, one of their teammates was usually within position to grab the rebound and start the possession anew. The poise that was absent from the Hawks in the first two games of the series was in full view last night and it was the veteran Celtics squad who looked lost in the woods down the stretch. The final score was Hawks 97 and Celtics 92.
Of note, the officiating in this game was inconsistent and often one-sided, as evidenced by the free throw disparity. The Celtics shot 18 free throws while the Hawks shot 33. Any momentum that the Celtics might have started was quickly stopped by touch fouls while they were being hit and grabbed at the other end.
In fact, the non-call on Josh Smith’s body bump on Rajon Rondo’s breakaway layup could be viewed as the turning point of the first quarter. The play was essentially a four point swing because the Hawks quickly converted on the subsequent five-on-four mismatch with Rondo still knocked to the floor. The play also fired up a tame crowd and the game immediaately took a different tone afterwards. All of that said, the officials didn’t lose this game for the Celtics, who once again failed in their team defense in three of the four quarters.
Overall, they allowed the Hawks to shoot 48% while shooting only 41% themselves. Defense is the key to the playoffs and while the Celtics had the best defense in the regular season, we didn’t see much of it in these two games in Atlanta. Boston was also out-rebounded 37-36 for the game after holding a 9 rebound edge in the first quarter. Rebounding shows effort and desire and it wasn’t there for the Celtics in the fourth quarter especially. Lastly, the Celtics were especially woeful at the stripe, missing 8 of their 18 freebies.
The Celtics must now regroup as they head home with a series tied that they were expected to sweep. Despite the home court advaantage, they must make adjustments and win Game 5, or their dream season may quickly turn into a nightmare.