|With the Hawks and their fans celebrating a Game 4 victory, Ray Allen already was looking ahead to Game 5. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)|
ATLANTA - The Celtics arrived in Atlanta a few days ago believing they would wrap things up here in this first-round series, one step taken toward their dreams of a 17th NBA title. In a stunning turn of events, however, they leave here itching for the comfortable confines of Beantown, in a situation where they could become part of nightmarish history.
Ex-Celtic Joe Johnson scored 20 of his playoff career-high 35 points in the fourth quarter to lead the hungry Hawks to a stunning 97-92 victory in Game 4 last night at a sold-out Philips Arena. The Eastern Conference's top-seeded team and the brash eighth seeds are now knotted at two in the best-of-seven series.
Game 5 is tomorrow at TD Banknorth Garden, and Game 6 will be Friday in Atlanta.
"No one said it was going to be easy," said Celtics forward Kevin Garnett, who had 20 points and 9 rebounds. "They played really well tonight, obviously, on their home floor. I've said before, that's why you fight for home-court advantage during the playoffs because it does make a difference.
"They played well tonight. A lot of Joe Johnson. I'm sure we'll watch film, address that, and be ready for the [next] game."
To make matters worse for the Celtics, it's possible that Garnett and Kendrick Perkins could be suspended for Game 5 for their involvement in a second-quarter skirmish last night. Hawks forward Marvin Williams also is in jeopardy.
After a loose rebound with 7:24 left in the half, a frustrated Garnett gave Atlanta center Zaza Pachulia an elbow after the play was dead. Pachulia retaliated with what appeared to be a head butt. Players on both teams began to bunch up and mouth off, but the coaches ran on the floor to separate them.
Pachulia was given a foul and technical foul while Garnett, Johnson, and Boston's Sam Cassell were assessed technicals.
Replays showed Garnett shoving referee Ed Rush, and Perkins and Williams went on the floor from the bench, which usually means an automatic one-game suspension.
"I don't know anything about it," said Celtics guard Ray Allen, who had a team-high 21 points. "I'm sure if there is some relevance, then we're going to have to deal with it."
Only three times in NBA history has an eighth seed upset a top seed. It happened a year ago, when Golden State upset Dallas. Now Atlanta has a chance to make even bigger history.
"It's really win or go home now," Celtics guard Rajon Rondo said. "We don't want what happened to Dallas last year. We want to go home and take it one game at a time. We might have looked past these couple games that we lost, but we got to move on from it, break down film again and get better."
Said coach Doc Rivers, "It's a tough loss for us, but we get a chance to take it back to Boston and see what we can do. We had our chances tonight, but give the Hawks credit. They made great shots."
The Celtics were basically beaten by two Hawks in the fourth quarter: Johnson and Josh Smith. The Hawks' star duo combined for all 32 of their team's points in the period, on 9-of-15 shooting, 12-of-13 from the line.
The Celtics missed 12 of 18 from the floor, 5 of 8 from the line, and were outrebounded, 11-4, in the fourth, scoring only 17 points.
"We have been down before and we know that," Johnson said. "We started the game slow and they hit us in the mouth, but we withstood and made a run. We knew we had a chance to come back and we jumped on it in the fourth quarter. And that gave us momentum and we knew we could play against the Celtics."
Boston entered the fourth quarter with a 75-65 lead, but the Hawks responded with a 14-4 run to tie the game after a technical free throw by Johnson (for a defensive three-second violation). A Johnson 3-pointer gave Atlanta an 84-79 lead with 4:34 remaining. Another Johnson jumper gave Atlanta an 88-82 advantage with 2:16 left.
"Joe Johnson is the most underrated player in our league besides Rasheed Wallace," Garnett said. "He's underrated. I'll give it to him."
Said Hawks coach Mike Woodson, "Joe Johnson willed us to the win. He was hot and we continued to get him the ball. It was nice to see."
Garnett's hook trimmed Atlanta's lead to 88-84 with 2:03 left. But Johnson followed with another jumper to give the Hawks a 90-84 lead with 1:41 left. James Posey's 3-pointer sliced Boston's deficit to 90-87 with 1:25 remaining.
With 39.7 seconds left, Johnson hit a free throw to give Atlanta a 91-87 lead. With 26.2 seconds left, Smith's two free throws pushed Boston behind, 93-87. Posey's 3-pointer with 4.3 seconds left trimmed Boston's deficit to 95-92. After being fouled by Posey, Smith (28 points) nailed two free throws with 2.6 seconds left to seal a mammoth win for the young Hawks.
About the only silver lining for the stunned Celtics is that they are going back home, still with home-court advantage, in a series where the road team has yet to win.
"I'm not going to discount anything they're doing," Garnett said. "It is what it is. You work hard to get home-court advantage for a reason. This is why."