ATLANTA The Boston Celtics' first crack at sending the Atlanta Hawks home for the summer didn't succeed as the Hawks held on for an 87-86 win.
When you look at the C's historically, Tuesday's outcome wasn't a total shock.
Under Doc Rivers, the Celtics are now 9-13 in close-out games.
On the road, they're 2-10 in such games.
As much as Tuesday's loss falls in line with what the C's have done in the past, there's no masking the fact that this was a game that was there for the Celtics to take.
Based on how the previous three games had gone, the Hawks' confidence was fading fast.
But Boston allowed Atlanta to have life in the second quarter, allowed them to pull ahead before a Rajon Rondo-led rally made it a tight game again. And down the stretch, Boston simply squandered one opportunity after another to get the win.
"It's a make or miss league," said Paul Pierce, who made seven shots and missed 10. "We had our opportunities down the stretch. They played with a lot of energy and a lot of pride. They had their backs to the wall and won a close one."
Boston's inability to make the clutch baskets down the stretch ultimately sealed their fate and was indeed one of the main factors in the game's outcome. Here are some other keys discussed prior to the game, and how they ultimately played out.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Rajon Rondo has been able to shred the Hawks apart in bite-size chunks that the Celtics are simply devouring. If you're Atlanta, you have to find a way to get the ball out of his hands. Don't be surprised if the Hawks look to apply more full court pressure to Rondo, with the hopes of getting the ball out of his hands and into the hands of Avery Bradley who doesn't handle the ball nearly as well as Rondo. Not only does this take the ball out of the C's best play-maker, but it also kills time on the shot clock which makes it tougher for the Celtics to execute the way they want to offensively.
WHAT WE SAW: Rondo's game was symbolic of how the Celtics played as a team - brilliant for some stretches, bad for others. He was the main reason why the Celtics were able to erase a double-digit deficit in the third quarter and give the C's a fighting chance to steal the victory. He had 13 points and 12 assists, but shot just 6-for-17 from the field.
MATCHUP TO WATCH: Paul Pierce vs. Joe Johnson: This has been a surprisingly lopsided matchup thus far - but not how you expected it to be. Pierce has dominated Johnson, plain and simple. Sure, Pierce has had plenty of help defensively. But here's the thing: The Hawks are one of the league's top-5 teams defensively and Pierce has lit them up throughout the series. As for Johnson, he has yet to have a signature, big-time performance for Atlanta - the kind of thing your best scorer can't allow to happen. Four games into this series, and there are at least five players (Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett and for Atlanta, Josh Smith and Jeff Teague) who have had a bigger impact than Johnson. Another rough night for him, and he and the Hawks will have the entire summer to think about why he disappeared when they needed him most.
WHAT WE SAW: This matchup was a literal standstill, with Pierce scoring 16 points on 7-for-17 shooting and Johnson tallying 15 points on 6-for-17 shooting. More telling was the impact each made while they were on the floor. With Pierce in the game, the C's were minus-13. With Johnson? The Hawks were plus-2.
PLAYER TO WATCH: For a guy who missed all but 11 games of the 2011-2012 season, Al Horford (12 points, five rebounds) looked pretty good. Not surprisingly, he was pretty fired up once he got on the floor (he hit Greg Stiemsma with an elbow mere seconds after checking into the game, and was called for an offensive foul) and his timing was off early on, but his availability can do nothing but help the Hawks keep their fading playoff hopes alive.
WHAT WE SAW: Without question, Al Horford was the biggest impact player in this game. His 19 points and 11 rebounds only tell part of the story of how he single-handedly kept the Hawks' season alive. Clinging to an 87-86 lead, his defense in the game's closing seconds forced Rajon Rondo to lose the ball out of bounds and with that, sealed a must-win game for Atlanta to keep their season alive. "I tried to make a play but got caught on the baseline," Rondo said. "Give Al credit. I just didn't come up with the shot."
STAT TO TRACK: You had to bank on Kevin Garnett dominating the series with whoever he matched up against at the center position for the Hawks. But this has been ridiculous. Put it this way. Garnett has had two games in which he scored 20 points. Jason Collins has scored a TOTAL of 12 points and aside from Game 1, has not presented much of a fight defensively in limiting Garnett's effectiveness. The return of Al Horford should close the gap at the center position for Atlanta. But even with him back, look for Garnett to still win this matchup - and with that, the C's to likely close out the series tonight.
WHAT WE SAW: The change with Horford at center paid huge dividends for the Hawks in ways besides him just scoring. Atlanta was plus-8 on the boards, which was one of their best rebounding efforts against the Celtics in this series. He also had three blocked shots, which equalled the output of the entire Celtics team. "He was a superman for us down the stretch," said Hawks coach Larry Drew. Said Horford: "You're fighting for your life out there. I wanted to bring energy to the team tonight. We needed to win this game."