Can a game be qualified as a "must-win" for a team when it's leading the series? Talk to any NBA player, and they'll probably tell you they approach every game with that mentality. From the outside looking in, the thought seems silly. But take a closer look, and you'll find that Game 4 between the Celtics and Hawks might just be a must-win for the green team.
Boston leads the best-of-seven series 2-1, but a loss in Game 4 on Sunday night at TD Garden (7 p.m. EST; TV: TNT, CSNNE) would give home court advantage back to Atlanta and even the series up at two with three to play. Playing at home isn't essential for the Celtics to win, but having those crazy people screaming for you instead of at you is a definite plus come playoff time. A win for Boston on Sunday, and the series is over.
The Celtics stole home court advantage with an 87-80 victory in Game 2 at Philips Arena on Tuesday night. Paul Pierce gets the credit for that one, putting 36 points on the table while scooping up 14 rebounds to send Atlanta "fans" packing. The effort was very encouraging, considering the absence of Ray Allen (ankle injury) and Rajon Rondo (one-game suspension) and the team's lackluster performance in an 83-74 loss in Game 1 last Sunday.
Atlanta had hoped to re-establish itself heading into Game 3 in Boston, but the losses of Josh Smith and Zaza Pachulia proved to be a little too much to overcome. Well, that and the fact that Rajon Rondo had his 20th career triple-double (17 points, 12 assists, 14 rebounds), Paul Pierce had 21 points and Kevin Garnett had 20 points and 13 rebounds and Ray Allen totaled 13 points and six boards in his return from injury. Nevertheless, the resilient Hawks made do with a smaller lineup and forced a tie game, 80-80, after regulation. Overtime was a different story, and Rondo led the charge with five points as Boston outscored Atlanta, 10-4, to grab a 90-84 win and the series lead on Friday.
Joe Johnson scored 29 and made a clutch three late in the fourth quarter to send the game to overtime, and both Jeff Teague (23 points) and Tracy McGrady (12 points, nine rebounds) had nice nights, but they couldn't carry the weight and overcome the injuries.
Larry Drew took the high road, choosing not to blame injury for his team's Game 3 defeat.
"You can look what our situation is from an injury standpoint," said Drew. "The last thing I'll do as a coach is use it as an excuse. I thought we were depleted but yet we were still in a position where we could have won the game. If I'm going to take anything positive from this certainly I'm very proud of our guys. Getting word today that Josh (Smith) was not going to play, I knew I would have to get some production from other players.
"I thought Erick Dampier came in and gave us some big minutes. He's a guy that hasn't been playing much at all for us. This is just a situation that I really needed another big body and he came in and gave us some really good minutes. Our starters played a lot of minutes. I thought Joe (Johnson) did a good job with his performance and trying to get us over that hump. Tracy (McGrady) played well for us prior to him turning his ankle. We've been a team that has had adversity throughout the season like everybody else and it says a lot about your team when they can step up in the playoffs short-handed and still put themselves in a position to win the game. We certainly had our opportunity. We just fell short."
Doc Rivers will certainly take the win, but he would like to bring down his stars' minutes. Rondo played 49 minutes and Pierce logged 47 minutes, while Garnett clocked 42 minutes and Allen played 37 minutes after missing 11 straight games and not playing since April 10.
"Too many minutes," said Rivers. "I got stuck with Kevin, honestly. Usually we take him out at the six-minute mark in the fourth; that was right when we were starting to make a push. And with Rondo. So we took the gamble; we thought we could push the score up. We got it to the 11, then they came right back. So sometimes, honestly, as a coach you take a gamble - you think maybe we can get this, put this away, and get guys out. And it backfired. We did put them away. And so I was really worried going in the overtime, just looking at Paul (Pierce), Kevin, and Rondo. They didn't look that fresh. And honestly I looked at the other team; they looked pretty bad too. So that made me feel a little bit better."
Another big question is health, specifically that of Avery Bradley and Smith. Bradley suffered a left shoulder injury (later called a "sore left shoulder" by the team) and Smith is still working his way back from a knee injury that sidelined him for Game 3 for Atlanta. Both players' statuses are uncertain, although Smith did say he plans to play in Game 4.
Game 5 will take place at 8 p.m. EST on Tuesday night at Philips Arena in Atlanta, GA.