BOSTON -- There are games where the final horn signals a celebration of some kind for the victor. Then there are games like the one the Celtics played Wednesday night. They won, beating Atlanta 88-86 in overtime, but it would have been hard to tell by looking at the faces of Doc Rivers and Paul Pierce as they left the TD Garden floor.
Both men were shaking their heads and exhaling profusely, as if to say, 'Wait a minute, did we actually win this?" Or, "How on earth did we ever win this one given everything that could, and did, go wrong?' Or in the case of Pierce, 'How did we win when I missed so many (13 of 19) shots?'"
The fact that they did win tells us so much about the post-Orlando (All-Star Game venue) Celtics. These are the Celtics with Kevin Garnett at center and Avery Bradley as a starter. These are the Celtics who now have the versatile and voluble Mickael Pietrus back. These Celtics are a different lot from the group that started the season. These Celtics have a resolve and a toughness that was lacking earlier in the season, maybe because they've been through so much.
It showed Wednesday night. A lot of things went wrong and while they may wonder how it happened, it did, in fact, happen. They did win.
"I felt like we played so hard (Wednesday) that if we had lost, we would have been down," Bradley said. "So it's good on the confidence side. It keeps us going. We're rolling right now. We're clicking as a team. We have our swag and our confidence."
Whoever coined the phrase "refuse to lose" could have had the Celtics in mind on this particular night, for everything, it seemed, from the schedule (fourth game in five nights) to the opponent (a good Atlanta team that last played on Saturday) to the unforeseen (Ray Allen missing the game when his sore ankle flared up) to the ridiculous (referee Marc Davis was beyond brutal) worked against them.
Throw in Kevin Garnett fouling out for the first time this season, an overtime period for an already enervated lot, the second night of a back-to-back, and you had the makings for a disappointing denouement. But these guys somehow found a way, even if it won't find its way onto the 2011-12 highlight reel.
"That was the worst game we've ever won," Doc Rivers said in a hyperbolic moment. "And you thought I'd say something else?" We were sort of hoping he'd drive a pipe through Davis, but there are still many months left in the year for Doc to start thinking about involuntary donations to David Stern's favorite charity.
"We didn't play well," Rivers said of his team, which shot 41.6 percent, turned it over 23 times and trailed for most of the game. "I mean, we just kept hanging in there."
The No. 1 "hanger-in-there" was, unquestionably, Rajon Rondo, who played the final 35 minutes of the game without a breather. He had one of those Rondo-esque evenings that was alternately surreal and head-scratching. He had yet another triple double, with 10 points, 20 assists and 10 rebounds. But he also was 3-of-16 from the field, turned it over six times and blew a number of possessions by waiting too long to get a play going. There were times you wondered if Rondo was trying to keep both teams in the game.
But then you see the line and you have to agree with the coach, who called Rondo "sensational." He has 10 or more assists in 19 straight games. He has 19 career triple-doubles. And he helped the Celtics to their NBA-best 19th victory since the All-Star Game.
"We kept fighting, regardless of the other stuff out there," Rondo said, a clear reference to the bizarro officiating down the stretch. The Celtics were whistled for two offensive fouls (both called by Davis) in the final minute of overtime. There also was a highly questionable call at the end of regulation awarding the ball to the Hawks when Josh Smith appeared to have traveled before calling timeout.
"We stuck together. We followed through and we got the win," Rondo said.
They did so despite Pierce having one of his real rim-rattling nights. He missed seven of eight three-pointers and all five of his attempts in the fourth quarter. He did, however, make his only shot of overtime. It came with 3:25 left and would prove to be the game-winning basket. The Celtics outscored the Hawks 4-2 in the extra period. How's that for over-the-top excitement?
Still, there is no diminishing the importance of the win as the Celtics head into the heart of this hideous schedule stretch by playing seven games in nine days, including the long-awaited back-to-back-to-back this weekend in Toronto, New Jersey and Charlotte.
They remain three games ahead of Philadelphia with eight games remaining. They are in a three-way tie with Orlando and Atlanta, all with 34-24 records. The Celtics are 4-0 against those two teams, meaning they have the tiebreaker against both. They have won four straight since their two-loss hiccup to start this diabolical stretch of the season.
"This is a tough-minded group," Rivers said.
On this night, the Celtics had to be that -- and more. And they were.