Celtics 99, Hawks 76

Celtics: Perfect storm

They channel anger, blast way past Hawks

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By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / November 23, 2010

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ATLANTA — Angry and, to an extent, insulted, Kevin Garnett stormed out of the visitors’ locker room at the Air Canada Centre fuming Sunday afternoon after eating a 102-101 Celtics loss to the Raptors, in which the defense did a disappearing act.

The ball of frustration just kept rolling from there.

“The whole bus ride from Toronto’s gym to the airport through customs,’’ Paul Pierce said.

If you weren’t talking about the issues, you were stone silent.

“I was doing homework,’’ Shaquille O’Neal said. “So I wasn’t paying attention.’’

The Celtics woke up yesterday in Atlanta, still upset as they went to shootaround.

“You just saw the focus,’’ Pierce said. “Guys were really [ticked] off.’’

Back-to-back losses fueled all the anger. The fact that they were facing a Hawks team that swept them in the four-game season series a year ago only compounded the frustration.

“For us, it was the perfect storm in that way,’’ coach Doc Rivers said.

As soon as they hit the floor last night, the Celtics took blowtorches to everything in Philips Arena. When Nate Robinson pulled up from 26 feet and shot a flaming arrow through the rim, it put the Celtics up 21 points on the Hawks not even nine minutes into the game. As Robinson backpedaled to the other end of the floor, he made the OK sign, then he flapped his arms.

It could have qualified as taunting. Then again, he could have just been cooling himself down. By the end of their 99-76 win, the Celtics had satisfied their thirst for vengeance.

“I wish we could bottle it,’’ Garnett said. “Put it on a shelf or something. I thought for the most part everybody was pretty [ticked] off.’’

Consecutive losses to Oklahoma City and Toronto were tough to swallow. They were winnable games against inferior teams in the Celtics’ eyes, and last night was a chance to send a message.

“Teams think we’re [soft] after losing the last two games, and with a team that beat us four times, it’s sort of like a statement game really,’’ said Pierce. “This may be a team we play in the playoffs. The regular season is a time when you can take away a lot of confidence from a team if you play and beat them the right way.’’

They delivered that message swiftly. The numbers at the end of the first quarter alone were hard to fathom.

The Celtics were shooting 72 percent. They owned the glass, 16-3. They stomped all through the paint, outscoring Atlanta, 20-0. They took advantage of second chances (7 points) and gave the Hawks none. They got out on the fast break (7 points). They spread the ball around (12 assists; eight players scored).

They led at halftime, 64-42. And even though the Hawks were demoralized, the Celtics never lifted their feet off the pedal.

“I was concerned going into the third, obviously, because we know who we’ve been,’’ said Rivers. “But you could see we were pretty engaged right away. So it felt good.’’

The lead stretched to 32 points, and by the fourth quarter the starters were watching Von Wafer, Luke Harangody, and Avery Bradley polish off the win. The Hawks were held to their lowest point total since Miami limited them to 76 last February.

“If I had to sum it up in one word,’’ said Hawks coach Larry Drew, “embarrassing.’’

Garnett totaled 17 points, 11 rebounds, and 5 assists, O’Neal had 13 points and 11 rebounds, and Robinson had 16 points and 10 assists filling in for Rajon Rondo (hamstring) for a second straight night.

It was Garnett’s sixth double-double of the season.

“I think he was a little disappointed with his play [Sunday] defensively and Josh [Smith] has given him some problems in the past and he took it upon himself,’’ said Pierce.

“He’s our defensive leader. Tonight he showed it. He was aggressive. Pick-and-roll defense is the biggest thing for us and I thought he did a great job of clogging the lane, making other guys take shots other than their stars.’’

The Celtics shot 53.3 percent from the floor and outrebounded the Hawks, 50-30.

“We came into the game with a completely different mind-set,’’ Rivers said. “Before the game I don’t even think I said the word ‘offense’. Our defensive disposition from the start was terrific.

“I felt that we were going to compete defensively, but the big question is, can we do this every night? We’re a veteran team and sometimes it seems like we’re counting how many games we have until the playoffs.’’

Whether they can do it every night, Pierce said, shouldn’t depend on how angry they are.

“That’s the way we should be every night,’’ he said. “We shouldn’t ever have to use the losses to get us up for these teams.

“We should play like that every night and we’ll put together a great season if we do.’’

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