It's been said time and again that defense wins championships. Forget championships right now. The Celtics need their defense just to get out of the first round of the playoffs.
While the Celtics are known for having Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Paul Pierce, playing tough defense was a big reason they earned a league-high 66 wins during the regular season. After consecutive playoff losses in Atlanta, the Celtics relied on their defense to get back on track in a 110-85 Game 5 victory over the Hawks last night at TD Banknorth Garden.
"It's obvious, hands down, when you watch both games [1 and 2], the level of intensity that we play with at home, and for some reason we haven't carried that intensity on the road," said Garnett. "At times we do it in spurts. But when we lock in and decide we're going to make some stops, we really lock in.
"Tonight, I thought we did a good collective job of doing that. We had a little slip in the third [quarter]. But for the most part the energy was there throughout the game."
Boston owns a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series. The Celtics can end the Hawks' season tomorrow night back at Philips Arena. Neither team has won on the road in the series. The Celtics are 5-0 against the Hawks in Boston this season.
Paul Pierce had 22 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists after averaging 16.3 points, 4 rebounds, and 4.5 assists in the first four games.
"Pierce got it started for them early," said Hawks forward Josh Smith (18 points). "At the beginning of games lately he hasn't been getting himself in the offense early on. And that's probably been the cause of him not doing well. He made it an issue to get out early and get easy buckets and put the onus on the referees to make calls."
Garnett had 20 points, 7 assists, and 5 assists for the Celtics, while Ray Allen added 19 points and five 3-pointers and Sam Cassell had 13 points off the bench. Boston was up by as many as 25 points, shot 53.6 percent, and nailed nine 3-pointers.
Defense has played a huge role in this series. Boston won Game 1 at home by holding Atlanta to 81 points and 38.2 field goal shooting. The Celtics took Game 2 at home by holding Atlanta to 77 points and 38.3 shooting. Boston lost Game 3 in Atlanta by allowing 102 points and 47.4 shooting. And the Celtics lost Game 4 in Atlanta by giving up 97 points and 47.8 percent shooting.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers said a day earlier that defensive play was going to be the main focus entering Game 5. And it was, as the Celtics limited the Hawks to 85 points, 40.6 percent shooting, 4-of-13 shooting from 3-point range, and only eight offensive rebounds. The only offensive bright spot for the Hawks was the fact they went 25 for 29 at the free throw line.
"Well, obviously, a better game," Rivers said of his team's defense. "The execution was crisp and as sound as we've had in a month and the defense was terrific. We were trapping, smothering, and we didn't make a lot of adjustments. We just did what we should do and we did it well."
Hawks guard Joe Johnson, who scored 20 of his playoff-career-high 35 points in Game 4 in the fourth quarter, was held to 21 last night.
"We're not very disciplined on the road in running our offense or getting into our sets or moving the basketball," Johnson said. "That's why we've lost on the road in the playoffs by like 20 points [each time]."
Next up for the Celtics is a chance to win the series at Philips Arena, where they couldn't get it done in Games 3 and 4.
"They have a hostile building down there," Allen said.
Said Johnson, "We've still got life, man. It ain't over yet. We've got to go home and take care of business and that's that."