ATLANTA - Some advice from the Celtics' youngest starter paid off in the final minutes of their 88-85 victory over the Atlanta Hawks last night.
"Rajon [Rondo] told me to relax a little bit," Kevin Garnett said after scoring 6 points in the final 2:52.
Indeed, composure played a big part in the Celtics' late rally against the hyped-up Hawks, as Boston improved its winning streak to 16 games, tied for the third longest in franchise history. The Celtics (24-2), who host Chicago tomorrow, won their 10th straight road game.
But the Hawks (15-10) made things difficult.
Garnett (18 points) converted the decisive field goal with a hook shot for an 85-84 advantage with 30 seconds remaining, then Kendrick Perkins blocked a Joe Johnson follow, and Rondo's free throw provided the deciding point. But Atlanta had two chances to tie. Johnson squandered one, hitting the first foul shot with 2.7 seconds on the clock, Garnett rebounding Johnson's miss on the second. Ray Allen then converted two foul shots with 0.7 on the clock. Mike Bibby's half-court toss then hit the front rim.
The outcome was in doubt until then, just as it was when the Celtics took a 103-102 victory over the Hawks last month in Boston on Paul Pierce's shot with 0.7 seconds remaining.
And though the Hawks took the first-round series between the teams to a seventh game last season, winning all three here, the Celtics keep having the last word.
"This is not a rivalry," Garnett said. "[The Hawks] are a very good team, they play with a lot of confidence and swagger. Joe Johnson is one of the best in the business and they cause a lot of hell and havoc. But you have to win for it to be a rivalry."
The Hawks seemed capable of victory. Though they started by misfiring from all angles, they kept firing and following, eventually flying into the lead until the final minutes.
"We didn't play great in a lot of ways but we just kept on grinding," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "They killed us on the glass and they got every loose ball. They got a lot of second shots but we executed down the stretch. This is a game in which we had to keep our composure."
The Celtics closed with a 22-13 edge over 6:41.
After a 3-pointer by Johnson (20 points) extended the Hawks' edge to 72-66 with 6:59 left, Garnett countered with a hook and a jumper, Pierce converted over Bibby, and Rondo finished a give-and-go from Garnett following a Perkins block for a 74-72 lead with 4:59 remaining, the Celtics' first advantage since early in the second quarter.
The Hawks regained the lead on Bibby's second-chance 3-pointer 25 seconds later, then remained in position to win. Johnson's free throw gave Atlanta its final lead, 84-83, with 48 seconds left. By then, though, the Celtics' offense was producing mismatches and Garnett and Pierce were capitalizing.
Garnett dunked off a Rondo lob with three seconds remaining on the shot clock for an 81-80 edge with 1:38 to play. Johnson's jumper gave the Hawks the lead 18 seconds later, but that was Atlanta's final field goal. Pierce's pull-up with 1:05 to play was countered by two Johnson free throws, then followed by Garnett's hook, which put the Celtics ahead to stay.
"In the huddle, guys just wanted to win," said the 22-year-old Rondo. "We kept our composure and got the win. I told [Garnett] to take us home in the last six minutes. It was him or Paul, or whoever, but I was sitting next to [Garnett] on the bench and I told him to make something happen. That's what great players do."
Philips Arena hosted a late-arriving, announced sellout (18,729) in one of the Hawks' most anticipated games of the season.
But the Hawks had a nearly empty start, missing six times on their first possession, and controlling the ball for 44 seconds before the Celtics could collect a rebound. The Hawks missed their first 11 shots, but their athleticism and resourcefulness kept them in contention (despite going 0 for 10, they were down only 4-2 after two Josh Smith free throws 3:20 into the game).
Zaza Pachulia's second-chance layup provided the Hawks with a 30-28 lead with 7:12 remaining in the first half, an advantage they did not relinquish until late in the game.
"We are motivated," Garnett said. "We don't circle one game on the calendar, we circle them all."
Frank Dell'Apa can be reached at email@example.com.