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Hawks 97, Celtics 92

Celtics’ reserves come up short

By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / April 21, 2012
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ATLANTA - The message delivered for a potential playoff rematch next weekend may have been just as effective in defeat as it would have been in victory for the Celtics.

Atlanta coach Larry Drew was forced to insert starters Joe Johnson and Josh Smith in the last 5:44 to seal a victory over a crew of Celtics’ youngsters and second-teamers. With the Big Three and Rajon Rondo not even on the bench Friday at Philips Arena, the Celtics pushed the Hawks to the final minutes before dropping a 97-92 decision.

The Hawks now lead the Celtics by 1 1/2½ games for home-court advantage in a potential first-round playoff series, but it’s apparent the Celtics think they can win in Atlanta.

And the Celtics’ B team almost did Friday, cutting the deficit to 1 point on five occasions but missing shots on each of those possessions. Avery Bradley finished with a career-high 28 points, and Keyon Dooling added 17 in a starting role.

“Nobody really gave us a chance tonight,’’ said reserve swingman Marquis Daniels, who scored 12 points in 34 minutes, both season highs. “But we gave ourselves a chance to win the game, we were a couple of chances away from it, a couple of stops here and there, but we went out there and fought hard.’’

The locker room atmosphere was rather bizarre without the presence of Rondo, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen, and Mickael Pietrus. The Celtics’ afterthoughts were the story lines for the night. Greg Stiemsma, an NBADL signee four months ago, was given most of the night off after 10 early minutes because of chronically sore feet and watched teammate Ryan Hollins give his most productive effort since signing with the Celtics.

Coach Doc Rivers even used rookies E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson in the fourth quarter as the Celtics attempted to steal what would have been a monumental victory against the Hawks’ front-line players. But Johnson, whom the Celtics couldn’t defend all evening, scored 5 straight points to extend the lead to 92-86 with 1:30 left.

“A lot of guys did a lot of good things and that has to help their confidence,’’ Rivers said. “There was a lot of little things that a lot of guys did which has to help them and has to help our team in the long run.’’

Johnson, a six-time All-Star, scored 30 points and Smith, one of the league’s most athletic forwards, added 19 points and 12 rebounds, but the Hawks’ other starters combined for just 18 points.

Besides Al Horford, who has missed most of the season with a torn left pectoral muscle, and Zaza Pachulia, who has a sprained left foot, the Hawks played their regular rotation, although Drew tried using his bench until the game became precariously close.

“Give those guys credit,’’ Johnson said of the Celtics. “They came out and played very loose. I don’t feel like that we brought our ‘A’ game, particularly given they have a few guys out.’’

Bradley scored 11 of the Celtics’ 22 points in the third period as he single-handedly kept them close. The issue was Johnson, who overmatched any of his defenders and tallied a rather easy 25 points through the first three quarters.

Kirk Hinrich’s jumper gave the Hawks a 72-61 lead with 3:38 left in the third period and the Celtics could have simply folded. But they stormed back with a 10-0 run sparked by a key 3-pointer from Moore with 39.5 seconds left. And the Boston faithful who filled Philips Arena began to sense an upset.

It was surprisingly competitive in the first half as the Celtics faced off against Atlanta’s frontline players. The issue wasn’t scoring, the Celtics shot 60.5 percent in the first half (23 for 38) and got 17 points from Bradley, but the Celtics were constantly confused on defense. Johnson took full advantage.

“We didn’t start the game with the right mind-set, but after that I thought we joined in,’’ Rivers said. “We didn’t win the game, and that was our goal.’’

Gary Washburn can be reached at gwashburn@globe.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.

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