The Philadelphia 76ers now have a glimmer of hope against the Chicago Bulls in the NBA playoffs, if only for now. As such, Sixers fans like myself may actually have to pay attention to the Boston Celtics-Atlanta Hawks series, in case the winner doesn't play the Bulls after all. The winner seemed more likely to be the Hawks going into Game 2 on May 1, yet the Celtics beat the odds and their absent stars to take back momentum.
Game 1 on April 29 was utterly awful for Boston, as it couldn't buy a basket and Rajon Rondo got suspended for bumping an official late. With Rondo and an injured Ray Allen out for Game 2, Atlanta looked poised to take a 2-0 stranglehold on the series - until Paul Pierce rose again to lead an 87-80 Celtics triumph.
Pierce needed every one of his 36 points to fill in for Rondo and Allen's absence. Yet it didn't look like it would be enough after the first three quarters, as the Hawks entered the final 12 minutes with a five-point lead. Without Rondo's playmaking or Allen's shooting touch, the Celtics were in danger of falling in a big hole - and being two losses away from the end of the Big Three/Four era.
Yet Pierce took the Celtics on his back, most notably by hitting 11 of 13 free throws and seizing 14 rebounds. Kevin Garnett did his part with 15 points and 12 rebounds, while Avery Bradley stepped in as the only other Boston player in double figures with 14 points. As for the Hawks, they struggled to score for the second straight night, but their defense and the Celtics' own shooting problems could not bail them out.
With only 34.9 percent of their field goals made, the Hawks had no answer for Pierce or for the Celtics' closing 26-14 run in the fourth quarter. As such, Boston now has the momentum again as it comes home, after it looked destined to get buried in Atlanta. And with Rondo coming back for Game 3 at home, the Celtics are back to being the favorites in this series until further notice.
Boston also got a gift by seeing Philadelphia slaughter Chicago for its own Game 2 road victory. Now the Celtics have to feel even more confident about facing a Derrick Rose-less Bulls team in the next round, if they both get that far.
Or perhaps it will soon be realistic to wonder if the Celtics would face the Bulls in the next round after all. Either way, a Boston-Philadelphia conference semifinal seems less of an utter impossibility than it did 24 hours earlier.
Robert Dougherty is a life-long Philadelphia resident and 76ers fan - who has become very familiar with the Celtics in that time.
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