Captain Paul Pierce seemed to be everywhere but on the court during the Celtics’ 101-79 win over the Hawks Sunday night. And Rajon Rondo simply seemed to be everywhere as the Celtics had a breakout performance in taking a 3-1 lead in their first-round playoff series.
When Pierce did get into the contest - for 16 minutes, 37 seconds - he was a consummate performer, producing 24 points and whipping up the crowd. The rest of the time, Pierce was running off the court to slap hands with fans, in the locker room receiving treatment for a knee injury sustained in the morning shootaround, riding a stationary bike, and sitting on the bench with the second unit.
Rondo (20 points, 16 assists) set the tone early, getting the Celtics into transition, executing the half-court offense with a sense of urgency, and sending the game into blowout mode.
The Celtics led by as many as 37 points in the third quarter in finally breaking open the series. The teams had played six times this season without a double-digit margin of victory. But the Celtics appear to be in control entering Tuesday night’s Game 5 in Atlanta, though there are questions about the availability of Pierce.
“I didn’t sense that [Rondo would have an outstanding performance],’’ coach Doc Rivers said. “I did sense that we were ready to play. You know, that’s obviously the best we’ve played so far in the playoffs. I sense that, but other than that, it was just - it started rolling. You could feel it. You can feel the momentum rolling on our side.’’
The Celtics seemed focused offensively as Pierce and Rondo imposed their will on the game, producing 12-0 and 17-2 runs and extending the lead to 80-43 early in the third quarter.
This was among the more impressive shooting displays ever by the Celtics’ Big Three - Ray Allen (5 for 9), Kevin Garnett (6 for 8), and Pierce (10 for 13) - plus Rondo (8 for 11) - a 71 shooting percentage.
The result was a major break for the starters - only Rondo and Brandon Bass played more than 30 minutes - and Allen, playing for only the second time since sustaining an ankle injury April 10.
The Hawks presented a different dynamic as Al Horford (12 points) played for the first time in nearly four months after coming back from a torn left pectoral and Josh Smith (15 points, 13 rebounds) returned from a Game 2 knee sprain.
Horford returned with 5:20 left in the first quarter, his first appearance since the 11th game of the season Jan. 11.
This was by far the best Celtics start to a game in the series. They either trailed or were tied after a quarter in the three previous games. In Game 1, the Hawks outscored the Celtics, 31-18, in the opening quarter. The Celtics’ previous highest-scoring quarter of the series was 26 points in the fourth quarter of Game 2.
“I just wanted to come out with the right mind-set and play the right way, get my teammates involved,’’ Rondo said. “I made a couple of passes, I got them easy looks, and got them in a rhythm, and [Rivers] kept telling me to stay aggressive.’’
Rondo had five assists in the opening 4:02, then got to 10 by feeding Pierce for a transition 3-pointer for a 51-27 advantage with 6:14 left in the half, concluding a 12-0 run over a 1:49 span. Less than a minute later, though, Pierce went to the locker room after appearing to step on Smith’s foot.
In the opening half, the Celtics shot 28 for 44 (63.6 percent), their most accurate shooting half of the series - their previous best was a 41.5 percent half in Game 1. The Hawks (45.7 percent) approached their previous best half (48.8 percent in Game 1).
But the Celtics ratcheted up their intensity in the second half with a 17-2 run, an Avery Bradley foul shot making the score 80-43 with 8:13 left in the third quarter. Then the Celtics went to cruise control.
Atlanta recovered for a 13-0 rally over a 6:05 stretch, a Marvin Williams 3-pointer cutting the deficit to 82-60 with 1:45 remaining. The Celtics concluded the third quarter with a 90-63 edge as Rondo hit a shot-clock 3-pointer, Allen a 3-pointer, and Rondo a drive, before Williams drew a foul with 0.2 on the clock.
Both coaches started preparing for the next game, resting players as the Hawks outscored the Celtics, 16-11, in the final quarter.
“We definitely want to try to finish the series out in Atlanta,’’ Rondo said. “We don’t want to come back here and play because, obviously, we need our rest. But we know they aren’t going to lay down, so we are going to go out there. It’s going to be a good fight. But, at the end of the day, we want to try to get a win.’’Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at email@example.com.