Spending the first three games of this first-round series in a slow grind, the Celtics were anticipating a breakout performance Sunday in Game 4. They spent the regular season as a shoddy offensive team, unable to score consistently, but looking dominant when they did.
If the Celtics ever blended their sparkling defense with an offense that executed and made shots, they would emerge as a legitimate Eastern Conference contender. They were such a team in a 101-79 demolition of the Hawks at TD Garden, looking as if they finally had peaked for the postseason.
As the East playoffs take shape, with the eighth-seeded 76ers one win from eliminating the Derrick Rose-less Bulls, the Celtics appear primed for another long playoff run if they can knock off the Hawks one more time.
A team that had struggled to crack 80 points in this series scored 64 in the first half, with Paul Pierce leading the way with 18 despite a gimpy left knee, and Rajon Rondo not only piling up 13 assists, but looking comfortable releasing his mercurial jump shot.
The dominant first half was the haymaker the Celtics desperately needed, a message to an Atlanta team that truly felt it should have led this series, 3-0, after squandering opportunities in the fourth quarters of the last two games. The Celtics spent those first three games playing to the level of their opponents, losing a difficult Game 1 when the Hawks blitzed them early and Rondo ruined any chances of a rally by bumping official Marc Davis in the final minute.
The Celtics won Game 2 with a heroic effort from Pierce and defensive help from the entire bench, then avoided a letdown and embarrassment by staving off Joe Johnson in overtime in Game 3. But Sunday night was the first time they actually appeared relaxed and comfortable in this series, and it was the first time they resembled a team that could compete for a championship.
“I thought it was a great win,’’ Pierce said. “It’s definitely the best we played in the series. We haven’t really played well yet, we’ve just been winning games. Finally, we were able to put it together offensively and defensively and really play a complete game.’’
The first-half barrage was stunning, considering the Celtics shot 40.6 percent through the first three games and had been stymied by Atlanta’s half-court defense.
And Doc Rivers added to the concern by playing Pierce 133 minutes and Kevin Garnett 122 through three games.
The luxury of such a dominant half was that Pierce was able to rest his knee, playing a total of just 16:37, and Garnett played 27:20.
With an opportunity to overwhelm an Atlanta team that had been talking confidently but whose psyche was fragile after wilting down the stretch of Games 2 and 3, the Celtics took full advantage.
The Hawks were banking on the returns of Josh Smith and Al Horford to inject energy, and Horford suiting up bordered on shocking. He was rusty, having not played since tearing his left pectoral muscle Jan. 11 at Indiana, but managed 12 points and five rebounds in 20 minutes.
Coach Larry Drew’s plan for increased enthusiasm by bringing back Horford failed. The Hawks looked dejected after dropping Game 3, and discouraged faces began re-emerging after the Celtics raced to a 32-19 lead after one quarter of Game 4.
The Hawks had been heavily criticized for their checkered playoff past, but entered this series feeling confident. And they won Game 1 on the strength of a sparkling first quarter and the Celtics’ offensive ineptitude.
Since that first quarter, they have been unable to score consistently (shooting 37.2 percent), as Johnson has been held to 36.8 percent shooting in the series, and 24 percent from the 3-point line. It has been apparent since the All-Star break that the Celtics are a championship-caliber team defensively, but they desperately needed the offense to catch up.
The Celtics won’t shoot 60 percent through three quarters often, but their Game 4 performance validated their ability to win with offense. They occasionally need to take the pressure off the defense. The half-court offensive execution struggled at times during the season, but the Celtics are difficult to beat when they are hitting jumpers.
“We are a defensive team that can score the basketball,’’ Garnett said. “We have our schemes down. Although we might not shoot the ball that well some nights, we like to say that we hang our hat on the defensive end, and the last couple of games that’s where our focus has been. We haven’t been worrying about shots. Guys haven’t been worrying about some of the things that have nothing to do with the defensive end. But for the most part, we’re coming together.’’
The Celtics’ defense was scorched by LeBron James April 10, but they beat the Heat by converting open shots as Rondo’s penetration created constant scoring opportunities. They were similarly dangerous Sunday night against the Hawks, and for the first time since the playoffs began the Celtics looked like a team that finally had discovered balance.
“That’s obviously the best we’ve played so far in the playoffs,’’ Rivers said. “I sensed that, but other than that, it was just, it started rolling. You could feel it. You can feel the momentum rolling on our side. And we made a lot of shots. When you make shots like that, and you defend like that, it’s tough to be beat.’’