at Boston 83, Atlanta 80 (Celtics win 4-2)
Offensive Ratings: Boston 101.0, Atlanta 94.3
Nine days before his 36th birthday, Kevin Garnett had 28 points, 14 rebounds, five blocks, three steals and two assist--production he hadn't put up since he was league MVP eight years ago.
Garnett took good shots and kept the ball moving in an excellent offensive performance. Defensively, he was even better. Garnett, above and beyond his usual phenomenal play on that end, kept the Hawks from getting many easy looks.
Still, the Celtics nearly wasted Garnett's vintage performance with a sluggish fourth quarter that included a near-crippling missed free throw by Ray Allen of all people and a potentially disastrous foul by Marquis Daniels on an Atlanta inbound. But Boston (Paul Pierce's denial of Joe Johnson's drive with three seconds left) and Atlanta (Josh Smith forcing a contested jumper the Hawks' final full possession, Al Horford making his last free throw) did just enough to ensure the Celtics won the game, and subsequently, the series.
Horford's final free throw was a particularly appalling example of the Hawks' strategic void--that empty area where most playoff teams devise plans to win games.
In the final seconds, Josh Smith made a beautiful entry pass to Horford, leaving Daniels nothing to do but foul in the paint.*
*That was Daniels' second foul on that play. He also fouled Horford on the previous inbound. It was ruled the Hawks had already inbounded the ball when Daniels committed the foul. If the foul had been committed with the ball out of bounds, Atlanta would've gotten two shots and the ball.
After Horford missed his first free throw, Atlanta trailed by two with 2.3 seconds left.
If he made the second free throw, that's just enough time to intentionally foul Boston and take a half-court shot--at best. There's a decent chance Boston runs the clock out before the foul, or the Hawks don't get a shot off before the buzzer.
Intentionally missing is obviously the superior move. So, of course, Horford made the second free throw. It's unclear what, if anything, the bench directed him to do.
The Hawks fouled relatively quickly, taking just one second off the clock, but that still was nearly half the time they allotted for this dim-witted plan. And after Paul Pierce made both free throws, Atlanta didn't even get off its attempted three-quarter-court heave.
It's a shame Horford will be associated with the Hawks' fateful mistake, because he was the reason Atlanta got back in the game, and even took the lead, in the fourth quarter. Through three quarters, Horford had four points and seven turnovers. The Celtics pushed him around and either just took the ball from him or forced him into difficult passes that they swiped. Somewhat understandably considering his injury, Horford just looked weak.
In the fourth quarter, in part because he got down the floor before Boston's bigs, Horford looked much stronger, and he scored 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting. It was welcome easy offense for the Hawks, who shot 40.1 percent for the series.
The Celtics led between 6:28 left in the second and 3:12 left in the game, but they could never put away Atlanta in part because they never found a second scorer to complement Garnett. Ray Allen (1-of-7, all three-pointers) was cold, and although Pierce (18 points, seven assists, five rebounds and two steals) had a strong game in sum, he stopped attacking late.
As the playoffs naturally toughen in the second round, the Celtics will have to play better--unless they play a No. 8 seed that beat an opponent missing the reigning MVP in uninspiring fashion.
Dan Feldman is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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