Celtics can't finish the job in Atlanta
ATLANTA - The final seconds of Celtics’ playoff games at Philips Arena have not been Rajon Rondo’s best moments.
In Game 1, Rondo bumped into official Marc Davis, leading to an ejection and suspension. In Game 5 Tuesday night, Rondo ran into the Hawks’ Al Horford and failed to get off a shot as the Celtics fell, 87-86, cutting their series advantage to 3-2.
Rondo did have showcase moments Tuesday, but the Celtics struggled with matchups as Horford returned for his second appearance since Jan. 11 and Marvin Williams provided physical defending and a 3-point threat.
So, the Celtics were unable to take advantage of the momentum gained by their breakout performance two days earlier and failed to convert in crunch time, extending the series to Game 6 at the TD Garden Thursday.
“Overall, I thought they played harder and better than us,’’ Celtics coach Doc Rivers said of the Hawks. “When you look at the last couple of games, we had great motion and movement. But I don’t think we had any of that tonight. I thought we were a stagnant basketball team.
“It was good in the first quarter - we missed a lot of open shots - but then things changed. They had a lot of open shots they missed, but then they started making them and got their confidence up.’’
But the Hawks would not likely have maintained that confidence without Horford’s inspiration and shot-making.
Horford, who missed the final 55 games of the season recovering from pectoral surgery, made a brief return during the Celtics’ 101-79 victory in Game 4. But Horford was in postseason form as he went for 19 points and 11 rebounds in 41 minutes.
“Listen, this was the team they thought they were going to start the season with and now they have it,’’ Rivers said. “So now we have to deal with it.’’
Actually, the Hawks are still missing center Zaza Pachulia (ankle), who could end up playing, according to coach Larry Drew.
And the Celtics have an injury free roster for the first time since February.
But there were questions raised about captain Paul Pierce, who sustained a knee injury during the team’s shootaround Sunday morning, and was uncharacteristically off-target late in Tuesday’s game, missing a layup and airballing a mid-range jumper in the final minute of play.
Horford broke an 83-83 tie with a dunk out of a timeout and a running hook, giving the Hawks a 4-point lead with 1:39 remaining. Pierce’s 3-pointer pulled the Celtics within a point with 51 seconds left.
But after a Jeff Teague miss, Pierce airballed an 18-footer with 18 seconds remaining. That led to a hectic finish as the Celtics, with a foul to give, gambled in an attempt to make a steal before Ray Allen fouled Josh Smith with 10.9 seconds left on the clock.
The Hawks called a timeout but Rondo read Williams’s inbounds pass intended for Joe Johnson in front of the Celtics’ bench. Rondo then dribbled along the sideline, went around a Kevin Garnett screen, but found the baseline blocked by Horford. He went back the way he came, but as the clock ticked down to less than 2 seconds, his bounce pass intended for Garnett was knocked away by Smith as time ran out.
“I tried to make a play and I think I cornered myself on the baseline,’’ Rondo said. “Give Al credit. I just couldn’t come up with the shot.’’
The Hawks led by as many as 12 points late in the third quarter before the Celtics rallied and appeared to be on the verge of taking command.
The Celtics went on a 19-3 run over a 6:10 stretch spanning the final two quarters. This was an impressive blitz as Rondo, who increased his consecutive double-digit assist streak to 28 games in the regular season and playoffs, led the way.
The Celtics took a 73-69 lead on Allen’s 3-pointer with 8:33 left in the game and had a chance for a 5-point edge as Mickael Pietrus missed a 3-pointer.
Smith then sparked a 14-3 Hawks run over a 3:45 span, a Johnson drive giving Atlanta an 83-76 lead with 4:20 to go.
Garnett scored out of a timeout, Pierce hit a jumper, and Allen (3-pointer) converted in transition for an 83-83 tie with 2:41 to play. But after Horford’s dunk with 2:21 left, Garnett missed in the lane in a mismatch against Williams, and Horford increased the Hawks lead to 87-83.
Pierce found room for a drive out of a timeout, but missed badly with a two-hander. The Celtics then forced a Horford miss from 18 feet and Pierce fired in a 3-pointer.
“There’s going to be nights Paul makes all his shots, like he did in Game 4, and nights like tonight, for both of us,’’ Rondo said. “The key is we got the looks we want. Even Paul, his last shot, that’s his shot. So, give them credit, but we’ll take those shots all day, every game.
“[Horford] makes a big difference - he can stretch the floor, he’s a defensive presence, he can guard some guards. So, other than that, it’s the same Hawks we’ve been playing the last four or five years. So, give them credit, they just won the game.’’
Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at email@example.com.