ATLANTA (AP)—The Boston Celtics were supposed to be resting up by now, getting ready for the next round of the playoffs.
Instead, they’re headed back to Beantown all tied up with the lowly Atlanta Hawks, who are starting to believe—really believe—they can shock the world.
Joe Johnson scored 35 points, 20 in the fourth quarter, and Josh Smith added 28 points and seven blocks for Atlanta, which surprised the Celtics again 97-92 on Monday night to even the best-of-seven series at two games apiece.
“We took care of our home court,” Johnson said. “Now we’ve got to go up to Boston and somehow steal one.”
Game 5 is Wednesday night in Boston.
No one could have seen that coming.
The Hawks had the worst record (37-45) of any playoff team, and they certainly played like it in the first two games at Boston, losing them by an average of 21 points. The Celtics, who won an NBA-leading 66 games during the regular season, came South looking to wrap it up.
Now, it’s a best-of-three.
“We’ve got to find ourselves real quick,” Boston’s Sam Cassell said. “We’ve got to find our team identity, our team chemistry, we’ve got to find all that real quick.”
The credit for this Atlanta stunner goes largely to Johnson, who took control in the final quarter. After Smith’s jumper put the Hawks ahead to stay 81-79, Johnson scored nine straight points to keep the Celtics on the ropes.
The knockout came when Paul Pierce drove to the hoop and left it short, then tumbled over a cameraman alongside the basket. When the Boston star finally climbed back to his feet, he had a look of disbelief—which pretty much sums up the way the Celtics are feeling about this series.
Smith went to the other end and made two free throws with 26 seconds remaining for 93-87 lead. Johnson—appropriately enough—finished off the Celtics by making two more foul shots with 14 seconds left.
“Basketball is a strange thing,” Cassell said. “Strange things happen.”
Johnson, who shot just 36 percent in the first three games, finally stepped up to claim his rightful place as Atlanta’s go-to player. With the Celtics trapping on the pick-and-roll, he went to coach Mike Woodson with a suggestion.
“I asked him to space the floor and let me go,” Johnson said. “It worked.”
Added Cassell, “He’s their franchise ballplayer, and he showed people why.”
After the blowouts in Boston, the Hawks turned feisty on their home court. Rookie Al Horford taunted Pierce after putting the Celtics away in Game 3, prompting the Boston forward to flash a menacing gesture that drew a $25,000 fine from the NBA shortly before Monday’s game.
In the second quarter of Game 4, things really got testy. Kevin Garnett threw an elbow at Zaza Pachulia while going for a loose ball. The rugged Pachulia got right in Garnett’s face, going forehead to forehead with the Boston star.
“We all know he’s a great player,” Pachulia said. “He’s done a lot of good things for the league. He’s a future Hall of Famer. But it doesn’t matter when we’re on the court.”
The officials stepped in quickly and Woodson charged onto the court to pull his players away. No punches were thrown and no one was ejected, though the officials did call offsetting technical fouls—two on each team—after looking at a replay.
“I don’t take anything from anybody,” Pachulia said. “The message was, ‘We’re right here. Even if we lose, it’s not going to be easy.”’
Ray Allen led Boston with 21 points, and Garnett added 20. But, after playing with so much confidence during the regular season, the Celtics must fight off the inevitable worries about a monumental playoff flop.
“Give the Hawks credit,” Boston coach Doc Rivers said. “This series hasn’t started yet, because no one has won a road game. It’s a tough loss for us, but we get a chance to take it back to Boston and see what we can do.”
Smith set an Atlanta playoff record with seven blocks, the last a key swat on Garnett after he backed down in the lane, looking for the easy shot, with just over 3 minutes left.
“It’s time to shock the world,” the public address announcer screamed to the sellout crowd of 20,016.
Boston started like it was going to be a blowout.
The Hawks missed four shots and turned it over three times before finally hitting their first field goal of the game, Smith’s 20-foot jumper with just under 7 minutes left in the first. Boston, on the other hand, hit six of its first seven shots—four from outside the 3-point arc—and built a 16-3 lead before the Hawks knew what hit them.
The NBA’s youngest playoff team was on the ropes, but it didn’t fold. Atlanta closed the period on a 20-3 run, taking a 29-24 lead to the second quarter.
The Hawks led 51-48 at halftime, only to put themselves in another hole with a dismal third quarter. Standing around on offense and doing little to create shots, Atlanta was 6-of-17 from the field, missed all seven of its 3-point attempts and turned it over seven times, giving Boston plenty of easy baskets.
Garnett scored nine points in the period to lead the Celtics, who went to the fourth with a 75-65 lead.
But the Hawks bounced back again. Johnson shot 7-of-10, including a couple of 3s, and Smith scored 12 points in the final period.
Boston missed nine of its first 10 shots in the final period.
“We had too many breakdowns,” Rivers said. “But give them credit. They’re athletic, and they’re good.”
Coming off an unexpected 102-93 win on Saturday, the city was fired up about its long-ignored NBA team. Woodson said he noticed some motorists flying Hawks flags on their cars as he drove to Philips Arena, something he hadn’t seen in his four years as coach.
Former owner Ted Turner even showed up for the first time in years, sitting at courtside and waving a white Hawks towel.
Maybe he’ll be back on Friday.
Yep, there will be a Game 6 in Atlanta.
Smith broke the Hawks playoff record of six blocks shared by Tree Rollins and Dikembe Mutombo. … Former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield was at the game. … Boston was called twice for defensive 3-second violations, and Johnson hit the free throw each time. … Horford had only four points, but he did grab a game-high 13 rebounds.