Doc Rivers admitted concern over the minutes his core players were forced to play in Friday night’s Game 3 overtime victory against the Hawks.
Rajon Rondo (49), Paul Pierce (47) and Kevin Garnett (42) all played at least forty minutes, while Ray Allen, who sat for nearly a month with an ankle injury, logged 37 minutes against a more youthful team.
If the Celtics were tired heading into Game 4, they sure fooled everyone. Boston’s stars were able to play limited minutes on Sunday night as the Celtics ran past the Hawks again and again to take a 3-1 lead in their first-round series.
Building a lead of 37 at one point, the Celtics took a 29-point advantage into the fourth quarter and won 101-79 despite scoring just 11 points in the final frame with the second, and parts of the third, unit on the floor.
Pierce, who tweaked his left knee during Sunday’s shootaround and then aggravated it in the second quarter, played less than 17 minutes but scored a game-high 24 points on 10-for-13 shooting.
“I kind of tripped over someone’s foot," said Pierce. “I had to sit around the last half of shootaround and I just kind of aggravated it when I came up off the screen with Josh Smith right there. It’s a little bit sore right now so Doc just wanted to take precautions tonight especially when we had such a big lead. I got some rest for the next game.”
Pierce played less than four minutes after aggravating the knee but continued to be effective.
Garnett went 6-for-8 from the field, posting 13 points and five rebounds in 27 minutes. He was only on the court for 10 minutes in the second half. Allen, who said after Game 3 that his ankle was “angry” at him, played 19 minutes and aided the rout with 12 points and five rebounds.
“That time on the bench was good time,” Allen said. “It was good we played the way we did early. We’ve got to manage our bodies.”
It was clear that Rivers made the right decision in giving his players Saturday off to rest their legs.
Rondo, coming off a rather unsightly triple-double on Friday night, played even better despite failing to grab the necessary rebounds for the statistical benchmark. He settled for 20 points, 16 assists, three steals and just one turnover in an effort that doesn’t look as fancy on paper but meant more to his team on this night.
“It starts with me, that is what we’re focusing on this series: taking care of the ball and all five guys crashing the glass,” Rondo told reporters after game.
Rondo was 8-for-11 from the floor, including 2-for-3 from deep, and was looking for his own offense earlier than he did two nights earlier.
While everything seemed to go right for the Celtics, the Hawks had an effort to forget and now face elimination on Tuesday night at home. Minutes before the tip, they released a lineup that included an active Al Horford and Josh Smith, who missed Game 3 with a knee injury, also returned to the floor.
Horford hadn’t played since early January when he tore a pectoral muscle, but resumed basketball activities last month. He wasn’t expected to play in the series, but decided to give it a go.
The two-time All-Star was noticeably rusty when he entered the game midway through the first quarter, but he managed to play more than 20 minutes and contribute 12 points and five rebounds. Smith, who admitted that the importance of Game 4 weighed heavily on his decision to suit up, was easily Atlanta’s best player. Smith had 15 points, 13 rebounds and five assists, but also committed six turnovers and attempted a few ill-advised three-pointers.
Jeff Teague, who has played very well in the series, was almost nonexistent. The defensive combination of Rondo and Avery Bradley shut him down. He took just nine shots and committed four fouls to go with seven points.
Larry Drew might have Horford back and Smith on the floor for Game 5, but the Celtics have all the momentum with three-straight wins after dropping Game 1 on the road.
There is little the Hawks can take from Sunday night’s defeat. They won the battle in the paint (36-26), but that was more a figure of Boston’s hot shooting than anything else. The Hawks were a dismal 4-for-20 from three, committed 17 turnovers and generally lacked energy.
“We were beaten in every phase of the game,” Drew said. “We just didn't respond very well. I haven’t seen that type of performance in our team in quite some time.”
The Hawks are by and large younger than the Celtics, but they were the ones that looked gassed in Game 4.