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Did you miss the Celtics? They’re back

04.03.09 at 11:17 pm ET
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The last month or so has felt like a long, slow slog toward … what, exactly? The playoffs are not yet quite in sight, but the conference race is all but decided except for what may be a trivial distinction between second and third place. The games, and the injuries (especially the injuries) have piled up on each other, and just getting from one to the next has felt like a trial. Overtime with Miami, double overtime with Charlotte, each win seemingly needing maximum effort and too many minutes.

For a time Friday night didn’t really seem like it would be any different. The Hawks certainly weren’t going to make things easy on the Celtics because they never do, but then early in the second half Paul Pierce swung the ball to a wide-open Ray Allen who knocked down a 3-pointer like it was a lay-up. It was the old Celtics, if by old we mean 2008.

In the end, a nice tidy 12-point win secure (click here for a recap), the stat sheet looked like this:

Five players in double figures, nobody with more than 14 shots, assists on 26 of 40 made baskets, 53.5 percent shooting and 35.6 percent defensively. Vintage Celtics.

If you had to pick a player of the game it might have been Rajon Rondo who had 20 points and six assists. “He was fantastic tonight,” Hawks coach Mike Woodson said. “He was fantastic.” You might go with Pierce who had 21 points and six rebounds. “Paul was very aggressive tonight,” Doc Rivers said. “They trap and I thought Paul was unselfish.” The combination of aggressive and unselfish defines Pierce at his absolute best.

You might tab Big Baby Davis who had 19 points. “When Big Baby is knocking down that mid-range jump shot, it’s kind of hard because you over-commit,” Hawks forward Josh Smith said. “It’s kind of like picking your poison.” Somebody asked Baby about that and he said, “They don’t believe in me yet,” meaning the other team, but they’re starting to.

You might have picked Kendrick Perkins who had 12 points, 10 rebounds and seven blocked shots. “If he doesn’t make the All-Defensive team it’s a conspiracy,” Pierce said.

You could have picked just about anybody, which is the whole point of the Celtics. “The extra passes,” Rivers said. “Twenty six assists. That’s a good sign for us.”

This is the way they need to play; with or without Kevin Garnett, and we haven’t even really noted the defensive effort that kept the Hawks in check inside and out, and if not for the 31 free throws (sound like last April’s playoff series?) this would have been a 20-point game instead of a dozen.

As it was in November and December when the Celtics were steamrolling through the rest of the league, it started with Rondo. Like most NBA teams, the Hawks didn’t really have anyone who could stay in front of him and as he drove the lane time and again the shots just opened up. Can’t key on Pierce because then Allen is open. Can’t try to take away the perimeter because Big Baby  and Perkins were doing work inside.

“Rondo’s speed was an absolute factor in the third quarter,” Rivers said. “You know, we’ve got to keep him doing that every night. It’s amazing how now they’re feeding off his speed. They know if they run to the right spot on the floor, he pushes the ball up the floor.”

And when the bench came in — essentially consisting of Stephon Marbury, Eddie House and Mikki Moore — there was no drop in energy, flow or ball movement. Forget Marbury’s 1-for-7 shooting line; he played fast and when the game gets fast House gets free looks and House doesn’t miss a lot of free looks.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about whether the Celtics can win another championship without a healthy Garnett, and as any rational observer will tell you, the answer to that question is almost certainly no. They can’t. But it’s also true that the Celtics won’t approach those lofty heights again without playing the kind of basketball they played against the Hawks Friday night. It’s defense, of course, but it’s also aggressive, unselfish basketball.

“It’s time for us to start building some momentum right now,” Pierce said. “It’s our fourth game in a row that we’ve won. We want to be playing well going into the playoffs.”

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