ATLANTA -- It had to happen sooner or later. Unfortunately for the Celtics, last night was the night the Hawks earned (in the broadest sense of the word) their first victory of the season with a 120-117 win.
Boston was hurt by foul trouble, fatigue, and turnovers. In the fourth quarter, the Celtics also reverted to bad habits, with several players trying to win the game by themselves. It didn't help that Dan Dickau fouled out late in the period, and all Doc Rivers could do was yell at Orien Greene as the final minutes ticked away.
With Delonte West sidelined by a left hip pointer, the Celtics were depleted at point guard when the game started. When Dickau picked up two quick fouls (his fourth and fifth) at the beginning of the fourth quarter, the Celtics found themselves relying on Greene. It was an ominous sign when Ricky Davis dribbled the ball into Greene on the left wing with Boston trailing, 107-106. At the very least, the Celticsneeded the veterans to come through in the fourth, and early in the quarter, they struggled at both ends. Most disturbing and costly was that Boston allowed Atlanta second and sometimes third chances to score. Even a winless team can capitalize on opportunities such as that.
Frustration turned into productive anger in the middle of the third quarter for the Celtics. But it was not enough to regain the lead. After trailing by as many as 7 points (84-77) early in the period, Boston entered the fourth tied, 96-96, hoping it had some energy in reserve. The Celtics shot a ridiculous 71 percent in the third quarter, but they did nothing to contain the Hawks, who shot 64 percent. The good news for Boston was that Paul Pierce began to find his groove in the third, scoring 16 of his 33 points in the quarter.
Rivers knew how dangerous the Hawks would be. After all, it was the second time in the last week that Boston had faced a desperate, winless team. The Raptors gave the Celtics a scare at home last Friday. The risks were even greater at Philips Arena with the Celtics playing the second of back-to-back contests against a Hawks team waiting on them for four days. Boston didn't need to play its best to beat Atlanta. But the visitors needed to play better than they did in the first half, allowing the Hawks to enter the break ahead, 61-60. Both teams actually led by as many as 7 points during the second quarter.
For those who have watched a string of recent subpar defensive performances by the Celtics, the Hawks game represented a familiar story. Both teams shot 54 percent in the first half, a number that surely raised the ire of Rivers. But beyond that, Boston committed 10 turnovers for 9 Atlanta points. Turnovers plagued the Celtics a night earlier in Cleveland, and essentially cost them the game. Just when it looked as if Boston was in position to gain momentum last night, there was a bad pass or traveling violation or a player stepping out of bounds. Clearly, the Celtics struggled early with focus.
Boston ended the first quarter ahead, 27-26, but the Green had plenty of opportunities to go up by more. The end of the quarter served as a microcosm of the Celtics' problems. Davis (25 points) hit a 17-footer to push Boston back ahead. At the other end, Al Jefferson stole the ball and sent the ball to Dickau on the break. Dickau went up for a layup but had his shot blocked by Al Harrington (34 points). The Celticsretained possession, but Kendrick Perkins was called for traveling before he could convert.
Early in the second quarter, the Celtics broke a 31-31 tie with a 7-0 run. Dickau started the scoring with a 3-pointer and a 22-footer. But when Pierce went in for a driving layup to continue the spurt, he was called for an offensive foul. Perkins capped the run with a 5-footer. But the Hawks were a determined group, tying the game at 42 before staging a 6-0 run that put them ahead, 59-52. Harrington capped the run with a pair of free throws that gave him a first-half season high of 24 points.