BOSTON - No one ever said playoff games had to be pretty, right? If they did, both the Boston Celtics and Atlanta Hawks might have been kicked out of the league after Friday night's performance in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals at TD Garden.
Ugly or not, a winner would ultimately have to emerge, and one did. Advantage, Celtics.
"Wasn't a pretty game, wasn't a pretty win," said Celts coach Doc Rivers. "But it was a win."
Paul Pierce scored 21, Kevin Garnett added 20 points and 13 rebounds and Rajon Rondo recorded his 20th career triple-double (17 points, 14 assists, 12 rebounds) as the Celtics barely squeaked past the Hawks, 90-84, in overtime to take a 2-1 series lead.
"It wasn't pretty. But who said it has to be pretty?" said captain Pierce. "At the end of the day we have to win four games and we won two. It got tight there. Joe Johnson is an amazing player. He brought them back there late, but we found a way. We found a way to retire the game in overtime. Rondo really came back with some vengeance today."
Rivers wasn't particularly pleased with how his squad closed out regulation, coughing up an 11-point lead in the fourth (76-65 at 6:58) as Atlanta tied the game at 80, forcing overtime.
"We got into the habit of milking the clock, and you just can't do that," said Rivers. "You can do that when the other team has two bigs. But when the other team has five guards on the floor, you absolutely can't do that. ... We did miss some shots, but I thought we went late in the clock too often down the stretch, and that usually means bad shot or tough shot."
Overtime, though, was a different story. Boston made relatively quick work of Atlanta, with Rondo scoring four straight to open the frame and the Celtics outscoring the Hawks, 10-4.
"Overtime was great." Rivers said. "I thought we executed better. We got what we wanted."
Joe Johnson and Jeff Teague did all they could to keep Atlanta in the game, scoring 29 and 23 respectively. Tracy McGrady turned back the clock, finishing with 12 points and nine rebounds after hurting his ankle late in the second quarter and returning in the third. Atlanta was without Josh Smith (knee), Zaza Pachulia (foot) and Al Horford (chest).
"I give them a lot of credit," Rivers said about Atlanta. "I mean, they're undermanned, we anticipated all the different lineups. We knew they were going to go small; I told you guys that before the game. But it still was quirky and it bothered us a little bit. They fought. And I thought early on they were playing free, loose, and almost with more intensity."
The first three quarters went about as poorly as they possibly could for both sides. Boston trailed, 19-17, after one quarter, with both teams shooting well under 40 percent (Celtics shot 29 percent and Hawks shot 32 percent). Shooting percentages improved slightly for both sides by halftime, at which Boston held a 40-38 edge while shooting 39 percent.
Each club scored 20 in the third, but Atlanta had a 22-20 edge in the fourth, led by eight points from Johnson and seven from Teague. Boston used a 11-1 run to go up by 11.
Rondo started slowly, completing the first half with two points, five assists and four boards. Rondo had a balanced second half to notch the triple double, his seventh in the playoffs.
"Just a matter of timing," Rondo said about hitting a rhythm. "A lot of turnovers in the first half, I missed a couple of shots, but my teammates believed in me and told me to keep going. That's what I tried to do for my team, just hang in there and got the win."
Ray Allen even returned for Boston, but he wasn't worked back into the lineup gradually. Allen played 36 minutes and finished with 13 points and six rebounds off the bench.
"I thought the legs were shot at the end," Rivers said about Allen. "We started trying to use him for decoy. He was terrific. And like I told you before the game - someone asked me, ‘Would there be a minute restriction?' I said, 'No, because we don't know when he'll play again or not.' You know? So I'm getting everything I can get out of him each game. I'm saying that jokingly, but somewhat true as well. Tonight honestly, we needed him."
Game 4 between the Celtics and Hawks takes place on Sunday night at TD Garden, and even with his team now in a 2-1 series hole, Johnson and the Hawks aren't giving up hope.
"You know we just have to keep fighting," a down-but-not-out Johnson said. " We are still very confident right now, the series is far from over so we just have to keep fighting. We've got to keep grinding and we will find away somehow to get a win."