ATLANTA -- The postgame analysis followed a predictable pattern. Doc Rivers praised the effort of the nine Celtics who dressed for yesterday's 100-96 loss to the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena. He pointed out that small mistakes and turnovers prevented his team from turning an admirable effort into a victory. The players talked about how frustratingly close they came, how they improve with each game despite the final result.
But those sentiments did not sound as good coming after a narrow loss to Atlanta as they did after a narrow loss to the Pistons Saturday night. The Pistons expect to contend for the Eastern Conference title once Chauncey Billups returns. The Hawks have struggled with injuries and the inconsistency of young players just as much as the Celtics have. There was a reasonable expectation that Boston could win even without Paul Pierce, Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West, etc.
Despite falling behind by 14 points in the third quarter, the Celtics seemed to believe they could win until almost the final buzzer. Instead, Atlanta earned its second win in a row and Boston dropped its fifth straight and 12th out of 14.
"It was one of those days," said Al Jefferson (18 points, 17 rebounds). "We had many chances to win the game, but it just didn't work out for us.
"Everybody hates to lose, but we're getting something out of it. We're playing better as a team and we're in every game. It's just coming down to mistakes we're making that are adding up and costing us games. We had 20 turnovers and they scored 32 points off them and we only lost by 4, so that makes it even tougher."
The Celtics opened the fourth quarter with a 19-8 run and took the lead, 85-84, with 6:30 remaining. Capping the run with a 3-pointer, Gerald Green pushed Boston ahead for the first time since the start of the contest. It was the Celtics' third straight 3-pointer, following two by rookie Allan Ray.
The game remained close down the stretch, though the Hawks managed to extend the lead to 5 on a few occasions. Trailing, 98-93, Green hit a 3-pointer with 63 seconds remaining. The Celtics had a chance to tie the contest for the second time in the fourth quarter, but Ryan Gomes took off before he had control of an outlet pass by Rajon Rondo and the ball trickled out of bounds for the Celtics' 20th, and mercifully, final turnover.
On their next possession, the Celtics tried to set up Green for another 3-pointer. Rivers had tweaked the play slightly from the one they ran moments earlier, but the small change kept the Celtics from getting the same result. Josh Childress (23 points, 14 rebounds) blocked the shot. A pair of quick fouls sent Zaza Pachulia to the line, where he made his free throws and established the margin of victory.
"That was a good defensive play by Childress," said Green (22 points). "I didn't set the play up right. I came off too anxious, and Josh got a great block. I felt like if he didn't get that block, we would have won the game."
In the second quarter, Boston lost its leading scorer (Green) to foul trouble and nearly lost its second-best offensive threat (Jefferson) to injury (a smack in the face by Lorenzen Wright). Despite those setbacks, the Celtics kept the game competitive. Matching its struggling, injury-depleted roster with Boston's struggling, injury-depleted roster, Atlanta led, 47-40, at halftime. Things might have been different had Green remained in the game.
Green picked up his third personal with 7:18 remaining in the half, and Rivers immediately removed him and inserted Ray. As Green headed to the bench, he had a few choice comments not fit for a family newspaper. He was not angry with the officials, but frustrated with himself.
He knew how valuable his offensive contributions were to the depleted Celtics. He appeared to be in the zone, hitting from long range with ease and breaking loose for dunks that constituted practice for a probable appearance in the All-Star dunk contest. Green also knew the Celtics could not afford any more foul trouble. Shortly after he exited, they had just as many field goals as fouls (12).
With Green destined to remain on the bench for the remainder of the half, the offensive burden fell primarily to Jefferson. The big man kept busy and posted a double-double by halftime; in fact, he almost had one in the second quarter alone with 9 points and 10 rebounds.
Jefferson picked up his fifth foul in the third quarter. Not surprisingly, his foul trouble coincided with the Hawks building a double-digit lead.
Again, to the Celtics' credit, they never stopped believing a win was possible. One of the few advantages of youth in the NBA.