ATLANTA - When you play for the Boston Celtics, anything positive you do always bumps into history. Whatever you’ve just done, somebody is around to tell you that somebody else did it better in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, or even four years ago.
Nor has this bunch won anything yet. What they do have is the knowledge that when the great, gutty, inspiring road playoff victories in Celtics history are annotated, what they did Tuesday night at Philips Arena will merit one of the top spots.
No Ray Allen. No Rajon Rondo. No worries. Trailing the Atlanta Hawks by 11 points with just under four minutes to play in the third period, and very definitely trending downward, they put on a sensational closing burst to pull out an 87-80 Game 2 victory that restores order in this series and sends them back home with a chance to do some serious damage to the Hawks this weekend.
Major contributors abounded, but no one stood taller than The Captain. Paul Pierce scored off the opening tap with a spinning layup, triggering a 36-point, 14-rebound, 4-assist game.
“He got off to a fast start,’’ said Atlanta coach Larry Drew, “and he pretty much rode it to the end of the game.’’
“It ranks right up there,’’ agreed Celtics coach Doc Rivers. “Factor in no Ray and no Rondo. Literally, we don’t win the game if Paul doesn’t play like that. He knew that, and so did they.’’
It could turn out to be a doubly disastrous evening for the Hawks. Team energizer Josh Smith did something to a knee sometime around the 4:20 mark and was not available as the Celtics took control of this contest at both ends of the floor.
“I don’t know much about Josh,’’ said Drew. “We’ll know more after he’s examined. He is one of our go-to guys down the stretch. We were missing all of the things that he brings to the table.’’
Pierce, Kevin Garnett (15 points, 12 rebounds, 5 assists) and Avery Bradley (14 points, 3 assists, and 3 blocks from the guard spot) were obvious standouts, but this memorable triumph would not have been possible without the contributions of a pair of forgotten men. There’s no high-fiving at the end of this one if either Keyon Dooling or Marquis Daniels hadn’t gotten off the bus.
Dooling only had two baskets, but they were vital, and the second one, in fact, may have been the biggest basket of the first two games for the Celtics. For there they were, trailing, 62-51, a floundering team going back to the 6:49 mark of the second quarter (when they led, 34-29), when Dooling nailed the second Boston 3-pointer of the series.
The first? Oh, that one also belonged to Dooling, who had broken Boston’s Pujolsian 0-for-19 3-point drought with a transition corner shot that had made it 55-49, Atlanta.
The second one was a dam-burster, launching the Celtics on a 28-10 romp in the next 12:18.
“The media knew, the coaches knew, and the players knew,’’ said Rivers about the Celtics having yet to hit a three. “When Paul walked into the locker room, the first thing he did was walk up to Keyon and say, ‘That was huge. That shot got us our feet back.’ ’’
Dooling also provided steady physical and emotional support for Bradley, especially when Atlanta chose to exert extended ball pressure.
Now if someone had told you that Marquis Daniels would have been discussed in any positive postgame context, you absolutely, positively never would have believed it.
Talk about a lost season. Mr. D was DNP’d 23 times and left inactive entirely on five occasions. But for some reason Rivers thought the most important game of the year was a good time to call his number.
“There was no reason to put him in the game,’’ Rivers admitted. “Sasha [Pavlovic] had played really well in the first half. But I just thought he might be able to help us defensively.’’
The Daniels box score contributions were modest (4 points, two rebounds), but what he did during his 15 minutes of playing time was enable Doc to strategize successfully while making sure he wasn’t killing either Pierce (44 minutes) or Garnett (40).
“Marquis allowed us to go small, and going small changed the game, offensively and defensively,’’ Rivers said.
The one Daniels basket, a dunk following a smart cut down the lane and a smooth high-low pass from Garnett, broke the game’s last tie and gave the Celtics a non-refundable 74-72 lead.
But let’s not bury the lead here. The clear man of the match was Pierce, who scored the first 9 Boston points to set a proper tone, and who then went into his Mariano Rivera mode by scoring 11 points as the Celtics moved from a 70-70 deadlock to an 85-78 lead with 1:15 remaining, the highlight a classic Pierce transition three to make it 79-72.
“A monster tonight,’’ lauded Rivers. “His leadership. His intensity.’’
Don’t forget his exquisite scoring prowess.
“I can’t take all the credit,’’ Pierce said. “Kevin was great on defense and Keyon hit a couple of threes to keep us in the game. So it was a good team win. Those types of moments are what being a professional is all about.’’
You will always take a split in Games 1 and 2 on the road, but it’s even sweeter when it’s accomplished in the face of adversity.
As the Brits would say, “Well done, lads.’’
Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.