Celtics stumble from the start against surging Hawks
Celtics captain Paul Pierce expressed concern with the team’s slow starts. The Celtics also had a sluggish finish last night, falling to the Atlanta Hawks, 97-86.
The Celtics were chasing the Hawks for much of the game, but still had the lead late in the third quarter, just before Pierce (bruised left knee) limped to the locker room for treatment. Instead of regrouping for a late rally, the Celtics faltered in the final quarter and were outscored, 25-16.
“I just thought [the Hawks] played with an amazing amount of speed, power, passion, and execution,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said before flying to Indianapolis for tonight’s game against the Pacers. “I thought they were better prepared, they were better focused. I just thought overall they were just better.’’
The Celtics (8-2) lost for the second time in the last three home games. Unlike their loss to Phoenix (110-103), part of an eight-games-in-12-days stretch, the Celtics were in position to be refreshed for the Hawks. Instead, they seemed to have lost the bounce in their step, and were outrebounded, 47-29.
“It was the second shots that really killed us,’’ Pierce said. “Obviously, the turnovers  really hurt. But I thought, initially, we stopped a lot of their plays and it was just all about controlling their one-on-one game . . . and I think, for the most part, we didn’t do that. We’ve got to do a better job of just staying in front of our man. I think team defense was initially good but we’ve got to play better one-on-one defense.’’
The Celtics starters began slowly. With the Celtics trailing by 8 points, Marquis Daniels and Rasheed Wallace entered, both contributing to a 9-point run over a 3:26 period spanning the first two quarters. Wallace’s 3-pointer at the shot-clock buzzer gave the Celtics a 25-24 lead 1:01 into the second quarter. But that was the Celtics’ only 3-pointer of the game - they were 1 for 15 on threes and shot 60.3 percent on 2-pointers (35 for 58).
Eddie House extended the edge to 32-28 with 7:55 remaining in the first half. But Atlanta rallied against the Celtic starters, Marvin Williams spinning into the lane to cut the Hawks’ deficit to 42-41 with 47 seconds remaining. The Celtics made two 6-0 runs in the opening minutes of the second half. But the Hawks capitalized on two Kendrick Perkins fouls in a 15-second span, 3-pointers by Mike Bibby (two), Jamal Crawford and Joe Johnson, and a Crawford pull-up for a 65-62 lead with 3:22 remaining in the quarter. Pierce departed with a bruised knee and the Hawks made a stop out of a Celtics timeout, Al Horford’s follow dunk making it 67-62 with 2:48 to play.
The Celtics closed the quarter by cutting the deficit to 2. Perkins hit a layup off a Rajon Rondo lob and the Celtics went to their second unit (plus Ray Allen). Josh Smith’s free throw pushed the Hawks’ lead to 70-64 with 1:25 remaining. In the final 65 seconds, Shelden Williams (off a Wallace pass) converted and Daniels scored twice in the lane, making it 72-70.
Pierce (24 points) returned to the bench before the final quarter and entered with 10:29 to play, his left knee braced.
But the Hawks started the final quarter with a 10-2 sprint and never looked back.
Zaza Pachulia’s free throw gave Atlanta an 82-72 advantage with 8:34 remaining. Perkins scored off a Kevin Garnett feed, then was assessed a technical foul. Pierce stripped Johnson (24 points), and Rondo’s layup pulled the Celtics within 83-76 with 7:03 left. A 4-point Hawk possession (defensive 3-second technical foul and a Crawford 3-point play) made it 87-76 with 5:56 left. A Bibby free throw made it a 12-point game with 4:44 remaining.
The Celtics then made a final attempt at a rally, Rondo driving and Pierce hitting a layup off a deflection. After a Crawford free throw, though, Rondo (9 assists, 4 points) missed two foul shots with a chance to cut the margin to 7 with 3:24 remaining. Smith’s hook gave Atlanta a 91-80 edge with 3:04 remaining. Allen’s layup cut the deficit to 94-86 with 1:12 remaining, but that was the final field goal for the Celtics.
“I just think we have to get off to better starts,’’ Pierce said. “I think we’re setting a trend to really not getting off to good starts. It’s been about four or five games where we’ve been down in the first quarter. It’s up to the starters to come out and really set the tone. We’ve got to do a better job to start out the ballgame.’’