ATLANTA — Not one person in the Celtics organization believed their conversion to a defensive-minded team — a team that challenged every shot, lunged at every pass, and slapped their hands on the floor before every defensive possession — would take this long to surface.
In the past two nights, however, those stifling Celtics have arrived with a vengeance, sinking their suddenly sharp teeth into unprepared opponents such as the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday night at Philips Arena.
Of course, such a performance would contain all the maddening inconsistencies the Celtics have exhibited all season. They decided to wait until the second half to actually offer any resistance, but when they did, it was a brilliant display.
The Celtics went on a stirring third-quarter run to take the lead, and held the Hawks to seven second-half field goals in an 89-81 victory in which they rallied from a 19-point first-half deficit.
Paul Pierce scored 17 of his 26 points in the third quarter as the Celtics outscored Atlanta, 33-9, in the period, and the Hawks never recovered. Rajon Rondo notched his second triple-double of the season with 14 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 assists, and added 3 steals.
Atlanta led, 46-27, with 6:20 left in the half, as the Celtics were back to their uninterested ways. At halftime, the players spent most of their break arguing with each other, snapping back at coach Doc Rivers for his criticism, and expressing frustration at a 15-point deficit. None of this, according to Pierce, was productive.
Pierce called his teammates together before they returned to the floor and told them to take a little of the anger out on their opponents.
“I just said we want to bring the fight to them,” he said. “I think we were kind of bickering at each other a little too much, figuring out what kind of defense we run and that was a little bit too much. I just had to say the fight ain’t against one another, it’s against the team out there on the court. When we realize that, we can play some ball. We stepped up that third quarter and we played the type of ball we know how to play.”
The second-half numbers were startling. After shooting 52.5 percent (21 for 40) in the first half, the Hawks were 7 for 28 (25 percent) with 14 turnovers and 1 fast-break point. The Hawks made four 2-point baskets in the second half, and after combining for 34 first-half points, the duo of Lou Williams and Jeff Teague scored 11 in the second.
“Our defense in the second half was terrific,” Rivers said. “At halftime a couple of our guys said, ‘Let’s do something different.’ I said ‘Why? We didn’t do what we were supposed to do in the first half.’ We made not one adjustment at the half. We just came out and did the same things harder and better. One of the reasons we haven’t been a good defensive team this year is because every time a team starts to score, we change.”
The second-half barrage began with a Kevin Garnett jumper and continued with 8 straight Pierce points before Rondo completed the 14-1 run with a long jumper and runner to slice the deficit to 54-52. Two minutes later, an 8-0 run gave the Celtics the lead for good at 63-60.
They increased the margin to 9 at the end of the period and spent the fourth quarter preventing the Hawks from making a serious run. The final period has been troublesome for the Celtics but this time they trapped Teague, Williams, and Josh Smith, forcing seven turnovers and using a late 6-0 run to polish off a satisfying victory.
“We were kind of disappointed because we felt like we took steps back from [Friday],” guard Avery Bradley said of the first half. “Paul came in here and let us know about ourselves. That’s why you saw us come out hyped, our bench was hyped, we were hyped. That’s the way we play and that’s how we need to play from the start of the game.”
The Celtics were abysmal in the first half, trailing by as many as 19 and looking lethargic and slow. The Celtics draw well at Philips Arena and at halftime many of their Atlanta-based fans pondered whether this was what was left of the Big Three Era.
The momentum gathered from Friday’s impressive 94-75 victory over the Indiana Pacers did not arrive in Atlanta until later as the Celtics were putrid defensively in the first half. It began with their refusal to defend Williams, who spent years in Philadelphia burning Celtics’ defenses.
He scored 16 of Atlanta’s first 23 points, including three 3-pointers, but it wasn’t all Rondo’s fault. The Celtics trapped Teague, who then found Williams in the corner for open shots. Williams, a 42.2 percent shooter this season, converted all six shots en route to 16 points as the Hawks led, 31-18, after the first quarter. The Hawks were 7 for 15 from beyond the arc in the first half,making their second-half offensive collapse even more shocking.
“Probably the most disappointing loss of the season for the mere fact that we’re playing against a team that we have battled in the past and we’ve seen this kind of scenario before, where we’ve played well and then when it starts to get a bit more physical, we don’t respond,” Atlanta coach Larry Drew said. “This was clearly what happened tonight. The last way you want to lose is for a team to climb up in you a little bit tougher and you don’t respond.”Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe.