ATLANTA The Boston Celtics are not the kind of team that gets too giddy about what some might construe as a quality loss.
But Friday's 97-92 loss at Atlanta just may qualify as the lone exception.
Boston had no business keeping the game close, let alone being in position to win it in the final minutes.
And there they were, playing without Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett who were given the night off.
No Mickael Pietrus (knee), Ray Allen (ankle) or Rajon Rondo (back) either, with all back in Boston nursing their respective injuries.
"Nobody gave us a chance in hell tonight," said Celtics guardforward Marquis Daniels. "We gave ourselves a chance to win the game. We were a couple shots away from it."
And that shot at winning was fueled by what on many stretches resembled the Celtics' "C" team of players at the very end of the bench that delivered in a big, bad way for the Celtics all game against an Atlanta team that played their usual rotation players close to their usual minutes.
"Even though we didn't win, I felt like we took steps forward as a team," said Boston's Avery Bradley who led all C's with a career-high 28 points. "It was an opportunity for us to improve, and a lot of our guys did that."
Boston's cut-and-paste second unit kept the game close with a number of hustle plays such as steals, deflections and contesting shots. But surprisingly, they held their offensively as well, tallying 29 points compared to 30 for Atlanta's second unit.
Even though the Hawks got the win, it was clear that Atlanta head coach Larry Drew didn't feel overly enthused with how the game played out.
"As far as I'm concerned, whether Boston won or not, they accomplished what they wanted," Drew said. "To have his reserves come out and compete at a high level, and to take us down to the wire the way they did."
Bench play certainly gave the Celtics a shot at pulling off the major upset. Here are some other keys outlined prior to the game, and how they actually played out.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR If the Celtics keep as many guys out as expected tonight, Avery Bradley may be the team's best scoring option among the starters. It'll be interesting to see what kind of impact he can make when more attention is paid to him offensively, and he doesn't have the benefit of Rajon Rondo at the point or Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce on the floor creating space for him to work.
WHAT WE SAW: Avery Bradley continues to make a last-minute dash for the league's Most Improved award, showing that he can indeed deliver offensively without the usual set of Hall of Famers or all-stars around him. He scored a career-high 28 points, his third game with 20 or more points in Boston's last four. "Avery played a terrific game in a lot of areas that really helped us tonight," said C's coach Doc Rivers.
MATCHUP TO WATCH - Sasha Pavlovic vs. Joe Johnson: This matchup will be decided in the first quarter most likely. If Pavlovic can come out and hit a couple shots early, his defense will actually get better Johnson. It's weird, I know. No one is under any disillusions that Pavlovic is going to shut Johnson down. But if he can keep him from being an efficient scorer, the C's will have a much better chance at victory.
WHAT WE SAW: Joe Johnson, arguably the best crab-dribbler in the NBA, was much, much, much too much for Pavlovic to handle. Pavlovic didn't take a single shot until the second quarter. By that point, Johnson was well on his way to a game-high 30 points - 23 of which came in the first half. Pavlovic finished with four points on 2-for-3 shooting.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Keyon Dooling is expected to get the start tonight, which should take some of the ball-handling pressure off Bradley. Dooling needs to be more than just a facilitator. He needs to provide the Celtics with a bit of scoring, something he has not done much of this season. He's averaging a career-low 3.5 points per game this season and has not reached double figures scoring since scoring 10 points at New Orleans on Dec. 28.
WHAT WE SAW: Dooling was very aggressive offensively in the first half, scoring 10 of his season-high 17 points. Just as impressive was how efficient he was, connecting on seven of his 10 shots from the field along with racking up three assists without a single turnover.
STAT TO TRACK: Both Boston and Atlanta rank among the bottom-10 in the NBA in rebounds per game, so winning the battle on the boards will be huge. The C's rank dead-last with 38.8 per game while the Hawks are No. 23 with 41.3 per game. In the two previous games, both Celtics wins, the C's have averaged winning the boards by six per game.
WHAT WE SAW: The Hawks played without center Zaza Pachulia, but it didn't matter on this night. Atlanta was plus-8 on the boards against Boston which more than anything else, prevented the C's from getting out and running as much as they would have liked. Despite coming up short on the boards, Boston still managed to tally more second-chance points (14) than the Hawks (12) in addition to outscoring Atlanta in the paint, 44-36.