Coach Doc Rivers made most of the right moves as the Celtics won their first-round playoff series against the Hawks in six games.
But, as it turned out, the most important pregame talk came not from Rivers but from a Hawks’ owner, whose bulletin-board comments provided extra motivation for Kevin Garnett to produce a 28-point, 14-rebound, 5-block performance in Boston’s 83-80 victory Thursday night.
And the Celtics’ key defensive sequence in the final seconds owed more to good fortune than what Rivers and his assistants had devised during a timeout.
Though Garnett had his most productive game since last season and Paul Pierce (18 points, seven assists) made a strong showing despite a knee sprain, this game went to the wire as the Celtics advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals against Philadelphia, beginning Saturday at TD Garden.
Garnett took offense at being called “the dirtiest player in the league,’’ by Hawks owner Michael Gearon Jr., who had been speaking at a fund-raiser in Atlanta Wednesday.
And Garnett took his game to the basket, posting low and abandoning his pass-first mentality.
“I told [Garnett] at halftime, I counted four times where he had the ball in the post and he moved the ball,’’ Rivers said. “And I said, ‘Kevin, when the ball hits your hands I want you to hold it. And wait. And then go to work. No more being a ball mover.’ And, I thought in the second half he took that advice and he was sensational.’’
Garnett, whose highest regular-season output was 25 points against Milwaukee Feb. 29, scored half of the Celtics’ 16 points in the final quarter.
The Celtics squandered a 9-point lead in the final quarter, falling behind by 3 points with 2:24 to play.
Pierce cut the deficit to 1 with a drive with 2:04 to go. Then, Garnett’s turnaround in the lane - following a Ryan Hollins rebound - gave the Celtics an 80-79 lead with 30 seconds remaining.
To preserve the lead, the Celtics would need to get stops on the Hawks’ Josh Smith and Joe Johnson, then have Al Horford miss a free throw.
In a hectic finish, Ray Allen rebounded a Smith miss but hit only one free throw, making the score 81-79 with 9.3 seconds on the clock.
Pierce blocked a Johnson drive out of a timeout, but the Hawks retained possession as Garnett spiked the rebound into the crowd with Smith pressuring. The Hawks took a timeout with 3.1 seconds left. Then Horford posted Marquis Daniels on the inbounds play, drawing a foul with 2.3 seconds remaining, missing the first foul shot, then pulling the Hawks within a point.
“The mistake we made, we were trying to scream, Marquis should have been guarding the ball out of bounds and Kevin should have been on Horford,’’ said Rivers. “They got mixed up and we got lucky.’’
Pierce finished things off with two free throws with 1.3 ticks left, Jeff Teague failing to get off a final desperation shot.
The Hawks led by as many as 8 points in the opening half, Marvin Williams converting a fourth-chance 3-pointer for a 28-20 advantage with 9:24 left. But the Celtics took command with a 21-3 run, thanks in part to Avery Bradley’s defending.
Garnett started things with a 3-point play. Mickeal Pietrus then dunked off a Brandon Bass miss out of a timeout. Kirk Hinrich’s 3-point play extended Atlanta’s advantage to 6. The Celtics scored the next 16 points. Garnett cut the deficit to 4 and Pietrus drew an offensive foul from Horford. Seconds after replacing Pietrus, Pierce got a 3-point play. A Rajon Rondo drive gave the Celtics a 32-31 edge with 6:28 remaining in the half, their first lead since early in the opening quarter. Rondo concluded the run with a transition layup off a Garnett block to make it 41-31 with 3:51 remaining.
“We thought Avery’s pressure could change the tempo of the game,’’ Rivers said. “We put Rondo on Williams and if they posted we were going to trap. The way I looked at it, Williams was killing us from the three. So, if they posted, he can’t make a three from the post.’’
The Celtics stayed in front, but nearly collapsed in the final quarter. Only Garnett and Bass were able to convert field goals in the opening 9:56 of the quarter.
Allen’s foul shot made it a 7-point advantage and Garnett’s turnaround upped the lead to 74-65 with 8:45 remaining.
But the Celtics offense stalled with Rondo on the bench, and the Hawks rallied within 76-75 on a Horford dunk with 3:52 to play.
The Celtics took a timeout and sent Garnett back into action. But Rondo missed a jumper and Smith drove past Bass to dunk for a 77-76 Hawk advantage with 3:13 left. Garnett was short from 19 feet and Horford drove for a 3-point Atlanta edge. Pierce lost his headband, scoring on a drive to cut the deficit to 79-78 with 2:04 to go. The Celtics had a chance to regain the lead, but Rondo traveled in the lane and the Hawks took possession following a timeout with 1:24 left.
Garnett then rebounded a Johnson jumper, and missed in the lane, Hollins rebounding and drawing a foul with 42.3 on the clock - “the biggest rebound of the game,’’ according to Rivers. Less than 13 seconds later, Garnett gave the Celtics a lead they would not relinquish.
“The last play Kevin scored on, execution - that’s all we talk about,’’ Rivers said. “They went to the last option, and then Kevin had to make the shot, that’s hard to do under pressure. I thought our guys did a terrific job.
“We moved on. Atlanta is criticized so much about who they are and all that stuff, and they had 10 times they could have went away, said you know what, we gave a good effort. And they just kept putting pressure on us and I thought that was this series - they kept putting the pressure on us and we had to answer. You know, Game 2 was still the biggest game, not having Rondo. Down the stretch, we won games with execution at times. It’s funny, the games we lost we lost with execution and that’s what it is in the playoffs.’’Frank Dell’Apa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.