ATLANTA - Celtics coach Doc Rivers often says his team performs best with its collective back against the wall. And the Celtics’ situation seemed quite desperate in Tuesday night’s Game 2 of their playoff series with the Atlanta Hawks.
The Celtics were without Ray Allen (ankle) and Rajon Rondo (suspended), then lost Mickael Pietrus to early foul trouble. By late in the third quarter, they were faced with a double-digit deficit.
And a lot of unfamiliar backs were lining up against the Philips Arena walls.
But the combination of stifling defense and Paul Pierce’s ability to take over the game carried the Celtics to an 87-80 victory, evening the series at 1-1 with Game 3 Friday at TD Garden.
“I felt I had to do everything,’’ said Pierce, who had 36 points and 14 rebounds. “Rondo being out, a lot of responsibility falls on me with playmaking, scoring, rebounding. And that’s all part of it. A lot of guys stepped up. I thought we played terrific defense. We got off to a great start, which was important.’’
For most of the night, the Hawks seemed capable of duplicating their 83-74 Game 1 win. By the conclusion the Celtics seemed fresh and the Hawks were limping without Josh Smith (knee sprain).
The Celtics regained momentum against the Hawks, who have been without centers Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia. This was a galvanizing performance, as backcourt reserves Marquis Daniels, Keyon Dooling, and Sasha Pavlovic made key contributions, freeing Pierce to focus on scoring.
“Rondo’s going to take a lot of pressure off me when he comes back,’’ Pierce said. “Like I told people before, every game is different. It’s not like a TV show where you just know what’s going to happen, you know how many minutes you’re going to play. I like to just give the game what it needs, whatever that is. Maybe it won’t be my scoring next game, maybe it will be something different.’’
The Hawks led by 11 points and seemed on the verge of putting the game away late in the third quarter. But the Celtics somehow switched the pace to their speed and clamped down defensively. They went on a 25-7 run over 11:23, taking a 7-point lead with 3:29 remaining.
A Pierce jumper bounced in as the Celtics concluded the third quarter with a 7-1 run. As the starters began returning early in the final quarter, Avery Bradley blocked a Kirk Hinrich shot and got a transition free throw to pull the Celtics within 66-64. Then the Celtics went with their starters, with the exception of Brandon Bass, replaced by Daniels.
“There was no other reason for me to put Marquis in - Sasha was playing well,’’ Rivers said. “Honestly, there was no other reason to put Marquis in. I just thought he may make a difference. It was just a gut call and he - I thought Marquis changed the game because he allowed us to go small. And I thought going small changed the game for us because it allowed us to do a lot of things, defensively and offensively.’’
Bradley tied the score, 66-66, with a jumper off an in-bounds play with 8:49 remaining. Kevin Garnett (15 points, 12 rebounds) maintained the deadlock with a turnaround in the lane and two foul shots.
Pierce scored in transition following a Marvin Williams miss as the Celtics took a 72-70 lead, their first advantage of the half. Pietrus forced a Joe Johnson airball drive, but Williams followed to tie the score. Then, Daniels dunked to give the Celtics a 74-72 edge with 5:35 left, an advantage they would not relinquish.
Pietrus drew a Johnson charge out of a Hawks timeout. Then, Pietrus’s pressure on Johnson led to a Pierce dunk and the Hawks lost Smith to the knee injury. Pierce’s 3-pointer made it 79-72 with 3:29 remaining.
Ivan Johnson faked Pierce and finished a 3-point play with 2:52 to go. But the Hawks would not get any closer.
“You know, it was a good team win,’’ Pierce said. “Everyone who played tonight contributed, Ryan Hollins, Sasha Pavlovic. Sasha, Mickael Pietrus did a good job, they took a lot of pressure off me by guarding Joe Johnson, so I could be more aggressive on the offensive end and do the things I can do to help the ballclub. Marquis, he also guarded Joe pretty well.
“It’s important we take care of our home court. The series is so emotionally draining, one minute you’re down the next minute you’re up. We can’t take this Hawks team for granted. Every game we’ve played with them this year has been awfully close. We just have to be able to protect our home court. It will be great getting Rondo back. Hopefully, we can feed off our home crowd in our first playoff game.