Finishing off the Hawks won't be easy for Celts

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Finishing off the Hawks won't be easy for Celts

BOSTON The Boston-Atlanta playoff series is over.

The Hawks are done.

Doc Rivers understands how easily this mindset can be adopted -- at least outside of his locker room -- following the Boston Celtics' 101-79 romp of the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday in a game that gave the C's a 3-1 edge in the best-of-seven series.

But as slim as Atlanta's chances are at a comeback in the series, closing out the Hawks -- at home or at Atlanta's Philips Arena on Tuesday -- won't be easy for the Celtics.

"You better believe that we're coming," said Hawks center Al Horford, who made his playoff debut this year on Sunday in scoring 12 points to go with five rebounds. "We're bringing it at home. We're looking forward to it."

Only eight teams in NBA history have led a playoff series three games to one, and failed to move on to the next round. The last team to do so was Phoenix, which rallied from a 3-1 series deficit to defeat the Los Angeles Lakers in 2006.

One of those eight teams was coached by Rivers, whose Orlando Magic squad in 2003 -- led by current Atlanta forward Tracy McGrady -- had a 3-1 series lead over Detroit and wound up losing the final three games and the series.

So as much as the Celtics relish the opportunity to close out the Hawks on Tuesday, Rivers and his players speak more about the need to have a great sense of urgency on the C's part heading into Game 5 which is expected to be the toughest game of the series thus far.

"You don't want to give a team any confidence," said Celtics forward Paul Pierce. "You got to go down to Atlanta with the right mindset. You don't want to bring it back to Boston because anything could happen. The NBA is a weird league; one game could give a team confidence."

Said Rivers: "You've got to take them one at a time."

Rivers saw first-hand how going away from that, can blow up in your face.

After that 2003 Orlando team beat Detroit in Game 4 to take a commanding 3-1 series lead, McGrady started talking about what it would be like playing in the second round shortly after the Game 4 victory.

Word quickly got back to the Pistons, who used it as a rallying cry of sorts that was part of their surge towards advancing in that series and ultimately moving on to the Eastern Conference finals.

These Boston Celtics are a veteran, battle-tested group that understands as well as anybody, the power of words and how they can quickly be transformed into motivation.

"We definitely want to try and finish the series out in Atlanta," said C's guard Rajon Rondo. "We don't want to come back here and play because obviously we need our rest. It's gonna be a good fight. But at the end of the day we want to try and get a win."

And while Rondo is always confident that the C's can emerge victorious, he by no means is taking a Boston win in Game 5 as a given.

"They are NBA players so there is a chance we could lose Game 5," Rondo admitted. "But it's not in our mind. We're gonna go down there and try to take care of business. If we do play the right way like we did (in Game 4), I think we have a great chance of winning the game."

Approaching Game 5 as nothing more than another chance to win, has to be the Celtics' approach going in.

As Rivers can attest, anything deviating from that has the potential for a horrific slump of the likes that this proud franchise has never experienced.

"Go out and play your best, and if you win it, then you move on," Rivers said. "But never look at the finish line; never even talk about the finish line. You talk about the next game, and just playing well."

Stars, studs and duds: Thomas churns out another strong fourth quarter performance

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Stars, studs and duds: Thomas churns out another strong fourth quarter performance

The pressure that comes with a tight game in the fourth quarter can be a weighty proposition for some NBA players.

Then there’s Boston’s Isaiah Thomas who continues to save his best work for the fourth quarter.

Saturday’s 107-106 win at Philadelphia had yet another Thomas-like finish for the Celtics as the 5-foot-9 guard was at his most dominant state in the game’s final minutes.

Thomas finished with a season high-tying 37 points which included a stretch in the fourth in which he scored 12 straight.

“I just love the fourth quarter,” Thomas told reporters following the win. “I just want to win. Whether it’s making plays for myself or making plays for my teammates, it’s about making the right play. I get ultra- aggressive in that fourth quarter. That’s what I’ve always done.”

And his teammates appreciate how Thomas elevates his play in the game’s most pivotal moments.

“A lot of the credit is to Isaiah, how he was able to finish the game tonight,” said Avery Bradley. “He was able to make shots when we needed him to.”

And while Thomas knows his shots won’t fall all the time down the stretch, his fourth quarter mentality does provide him with a level of confidence that no matter what the defense does to him or what the score may be, he can swing the game’s momentum in his team’s favor.

“Some guys get a little tight, they get a little timid (in the fourth quarter),” Thomas said. “I embrace it. I want to be great. I want to be somebody my teammates can call on when the game is close.”

Here are the Stars, Studs and Duds from Saturday night’s game.

STARS

Isaiah Thomas: There was no more dominant player on Saturday night than Thomas. He finished with a game-high 37 points along with seven assists.

Dario Saric: It was a breakout game for the 22-year-old rookie who led the Sixers with 21 points as well as 12 rebounds for his third double-double this season. Both his points and rebound totals tied his career highs in those categories.

STUDS

Avery Bradley: Boston’s surge towards victory did not kick in until the third quarter which is when Bradley elevated his play offensively. In the third he scored 10 of his 20 points on the night, to go along with a team-high nine rebounds.

Ersan Illyasova: He finished with 18 points which included a pair of three-pointers in the closing seconds of the game. He also grabbed six rebounds and two assists.

DUDS

Celtics first half defense: There wasn’t much to like about Boston defensively in the first half. The Celtics struggled to take away or limit Philadelphia’s only strength Saturday night which was three-point shooting. The Sixers nailed nine of their 18 three-point attempts in the first half in addition to hurting the Celtics’ transition defense which gave up seven fast-break points to Philly compared to Boston scoring just one point in transition.

C's edge out Sixers 107-106

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C's edge out Sixers 107-106

The Boston Celtics had another one of those nights when the defense took a lot longer to get on track than anyone with the Celtics could have felt comfortable about.

But they made just enough plays down the stretch to squeak out a 107-106 win.

Isaiah Thomas led all scorers with 37 points to go with seven assists.

Philadelphia's Dario Saric, who finished with 21 points and 12 rebounds off the bench, missed a 3-pointer that was defended tightly by Jonas Jerebko, that was rebounded by Marcus Smart.

With 8.6 seconds to play, Smart made both free throws to make it a two-possession game.

Philadelphia's Ersan Ilyasova hit a 3-pointer with 2.8 seconds to play, which led to Boston's Brad Stevens immediately calling a time-out.

Coming out of the time-out, Boston's Jae Crowder in-bounded the ball to Al Horford who was fouled with 1.7 seconds to play.

Horford made both free throws to seal the victory. With a four-point lead, Ilyasova hit yet another 3-pointer as the final horn expired.

Down the stretch, the Celtics were led by Thomas who scored 12 of their last 17 points.

After leading 90-88, Thomas scored eight straight to put Boston ahead 98-91.

But the Sixers were getting a career night from Saric whose scoop shot with 34.6 seconds to play tied the game at 100.

Following a Celtics time-out, Thomas continued his dominant fourth quarter with a blow by lay-up past Saric.

The Sixers, down 102-100, called a time-out with 30 seconds.

Philadelphia had three shots at the rim following the time-out, but the ball eventually wound up in the hands of Avery Bradley who was fouled with 16.3 seconds to play.

Bradley,who had 20 points and nine rebounds, made the second of the two free throws that put Boston ahead by three points.

After being tied at 74 through three quarters, the Celtics opened the fourth with an 8-2 run highlighted by an Al Horford 3-pointer that made it an 82-76 game.

The Sixers called a time-out with 10:22 to play, well aware that the game’s fleeting momentum was squarely in Boston’s favor.

Philadelphia didn’t fall too far behind, but the Celtics’ control of the game seemed to continue to grow.

Boston got back into the game with timely stops, big blocks (Jaylen Brown) and a bunch of multiple effort plays which collectively were in stark contrast to how things went in the first half.

Philadelphia has been among the worst teams in the NBA this season, and were playing without their best player Joel Embiid who does not play in the second night of back-to-back games (Philadelphia played Orlando on Friday night).

So without their best interior force offensively, the Sixers relied heavily on their 3-point shooting.

It was a good strategy that the Celtics had no answer for in the first half which was one in which Boston spent primarily playing catch-up.

The Sixers, who came into the game ranked ninth in the NBA in 3-point shooting (36.1 percent) and seventh in 3-pointers made (10.6), were a blistering 9-for-18 on 3s in the first half.

Meanwhile, Boston’s offense never seemed to get into any kind of flow or rhythm which was a key to the Celtics going into the half trailing 53-45 after having fallen behind by as many as 11 points.