Celtics fans had been waiting for Paul Pierce to have a good shooting night in Boston’s series against the Atlanta Hawks. With his 10-of-13 shooting, 24-point performance, Pierce finally gave the fans what they wanted. Boston extended a 13 point first quarter lead to 23 by halftime and never looked back, grabbing a 3-1 series lead in their 101-79 Game 4 rout to spoil Josh Smith and Al Horford’s return.
I expressed concerns that Joe Johnson and Jeff Teague would only be able to keep up their high level of production without Josh Smith, but it turns out that even with him back on the floor they struggled to produce. Johnson finished with nine and Teague was even worse with just seven. Smith led Atlanta with 15 points and 13 rebounds while Horford had 12 off the bench. But the Hawks starters really didn’t play too much in the second half after Boston extended the lead to as many as 37 in the third quarter. We’ve seen this from the Atlanta Hawks in recent years: a gifted, athletic and talented team amasses a solid record in the regular season but doesn’t turn many heads, then falls flat on its face in the first or second round (usually with a few extremely underwhelming performances), which turns into a recurring cycle when they do the exact same thing the next year and no one is surprised. It’s tougher to criticize a team that played without a former All-Star for the majority of the season, but Atlanta should be competing better than this.
Despite the crowd loving every minute of Paul Pierce’s big first half, everyone in Boston held their breath when he went down with an apparent knee injury in the second quarter. Fortunately, he worked his way to the stationary bike and came back to play for a little while in the third quarter before he and other Celtics battling injuries were able to get some much-needed rest. In fact, no Celtic played more than 30 minutes other than Rajon Rondo and Brandon Bass. Because the aging Celtics played so well in the first half, they benefitted from a lot of rest time in a game that was pretty much over by halftime. Avery Bradley, who was playing through a dislocated shoulder, only played 19 minutes before sitting down. Ray Allen, who had 12 points in his second game back after missing almost a month with ankle problems, also played just 19 minutes before sitting down. It didn’t take long for the Hawks to recognize Game 4 was beyond their grasp and they rested their starters, but with Boston’s stars getting so much rest after packing such a wallop that fast, all the momentum heading into Game 5 in Atlanta lies with the Celts.
Boston is a dangerous playoff team despite their aging bodies and a myriad of minor injuries. If they can stay healthy, they should benefit from an easy path to the Eastern Conference finals now that it looks like Philadelphia will move on past the injury-plagued Chicago Bulls. It’s crucial for this team to finish the Hawks in Game 5 on the road and give themselves as much time to rest before the next round as possible. Atlanta needed to elevate their game to have any chance in this series, but with Josh Smith missing a game and tonight’s catastrophe of a game, the Hawks are as good as eliminated at this point. Horford looked decent in his return, but the first game back is always the easiest because adrenaline and excitement to be back on the floor takes over. To win this series, the Hawks would have to win three straight while dealing with the inevitable team chemistry issues that would arise from reinserting a former All-Star into a lineup that has become used to playing without him. With Ray Allen back and Rajon Rondo not giving referees any reason to eject him, the Celtics are an extremely tough playoff team, and that Hawks just don’t have the firepower this year to advance past the first round.