Celtics 107, Hawks 102 (OT)
Two months ago Jason Terry dubbed the Celtics bench “The Gangster Squad.” It was a somewhat dubious nickname for a unit that was very inconsistent at the time, handed out by a player who was struggling to find his role with a new team, and may have come across as meaningless bluster considering Boston was hovering around five hundred in January. Yet now the Jet, and the rest of the C’s reserves, are not only performing consistently, they’re coming through in the clutch.
Boston blew a 27-point first half lead the last time they squared off with the Hawks (34-27) and ended up dropping the game in double overtime. This time, they looked to put Atlanta away early in the fourth quarter as they went on a 10-0 run to take an 82-72 lead. Interestingly enough, all four buckets in that run came from reserves (Jordan Crawford, Jeff Green, and Terry) including what is quickly becoming Green’s obligatory nightly highlight dunk. The bench scored 14 of the C’s 22 points in the fourth, and simply put, that’s huge.
Then things started to slip a little bit. With Garnett out of the game the Celtics’ interior defense looked disjointed at best, and even when he returned to the floor they continued to be susceptible to high-low passes between Al Horford and Josh Smith. Jeff Teague was able to penetrate at will, and after Terry blew a layup, Teague hit three-pointer to complete a five-point swing that cut Boston’s lead to seven. Some baskets are such huge momentum shifts that they change the entire complexion of the game. After blowing by Teague in a situation where the Hawks point guard clearly thought he had help down-low, Terry blew the easy chance and missed an opportunity to break Atlanta’s back by putting his team up 12.
From that point on the Celts were on their heels. They allowed Smith to get a number of easy points in the paint, started walking the ball up the floor, standing around on offense, and if not for The Captain hitting a couple of typically clutch shots in the final minutes, they may have blown another lead against the Hawks.
Luckily, Josh Smith, despite playing for Atlanta, decided he had little interest in his team getting a good shot at the end of regulation, and demonstrated those feelings by throwing a bizarrely ill-advised behind-the-back pass into the arms of two Celtics’ defenders.
If there’s one thing Boston has shown the rest of the NBA during their current run (they’ve now won five straight overall, nine straight at home, and are 14-4 since Rondo injured himself against the Hawks on January 25th), it’s that this gritty veteran-laden team will execute down the stretch if given enough chances. Atlanta gave the C’s an extra opportunity to win a game with big playoff seeding implications on Friday night, and the Celts were obliged to get the job done on the second try.
Despite falling behind 98-94 at the start of the overtime, Jeff Green coaxed in a three from the corner, Pierce nailed a cold-blooded triple from way out, and the C’s clawed back to tie the game at 102. When they needed a big shot to bring this one home, Boston went to The Captain once again. Just like he did on Wednesday night in Indiana (as a decoy), Pierce drew a crowd as he drove baseline, found Terry wide open at the top of the key and watched the TD Garden erupt as the Jet hit the biggest shot of his short career with the Celtics.
As he sailed back towards the bench with arms outstretched, and high-fived the rest of a reserve unit that put up 46 points in the victory, Terry finally put his money where his mouth was with that nickname. The Gangster Squad has been a huge part of the C’s offensive balance during this run, and they don’t necessarily leave the floor when it’s time to hit big shots. That’s why Boston has been able to climb back into the thick of the playoff race- they’re now tied with Atlanta for the fifth seed- and why their numerous weapons will continue to keep opposing defenses off balance.