- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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BOSTON -- If you were looking for great theater, the Garden parquet was the wrong venue on Sunday night.
Game 4 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals was utterly devoid of cliff hangers, nail biters, or any other cliches that might suggest a night of nerve-wracking athletic competition. We've come to expect this Celtics-Hawks series to provide us with a certain Shakespearian flair, but the only drama that left us hanging in the balance on Sunday was when Doc Rivers would insert seldom-used rookie E'Twaun Moore (for the record, it was with 7:55 left in the game).
You want Shakespeare? This was the Boston's adaption of "As You Like It."
Whatever the Boston Celtics wanted, they got. Fast-break layups, give-and-go baskets, post-ups, perimeter jumpers, 3-point bombs.
And here's a little foreshadowing for you: When the Atlanta Hawks called a timeout a mere 4 minutes, 4 seconds into the game, they were already trailing 13-6.
At that juncture, the Celtics had scored 13 points on five assists. When you factor in that one of those hoops was an Avery Bradley 3-pointer, what that means is Boston notched five assists on six baskets.
Can you say efficient?
"When they're making shots like that," lamented Hawks guard Jeff Teague, "they are pretty tough to guard."
Doc Rivers loves to tell us this is a "miss-make" league. When you move the ball with the precision that Rajon Rondo (16 assists) and friends demonstrated in Game 4, your degree of difficulty becomes akin to sinking pop-a-shots in your friend's basement.
We know the Celtics thrive on the defensive end of the floor. Their spirited pressure forced Atlanta to cough up the ball six times by the time the game was seven minutes old. By halftime, the visitors had already turned the ball over 11 times. Those forced miscues create opportunities, and when Boston's offense is as efficient as it was on Sunday night, the Celtics are close to unbeatable.
"You could feel it," Rivers confirmed. "You could feel the momentum rolling on our side."
No wonder Rondo had 13 assists by halftime. No wonder the Celtics shot 65 percent (or better) for most of the first half before settling on a 63.6 percentage at the break.
And then there's Pierce, who craves the big shot on the big stage. Rivers revealed that Pierce injured his knee during the team's shootaround and was a game-time decision. Who knew? Pierce was aware the Hawks had vowed to eliminate him from the offensive equation with quick traps and double teams, so he merely stayed one step ahead of the pressure, drilling shots from inside the key, along the perimeter and behind the 3-point line. He showed no signs of injury until he collided with Atlanta forward Josh Smith with 5:45 left until halftime and went down clutching his knee.
Pierce immediately retreated to the locker room for the remainder of the half, but he was back for more in the third quarter. After picking off yet another errant Atlanta pass, he chased it out of bounds and kept going into the stands, high-fiving the grateful patrons as he passed. Moments, later, Rivers wisely removed him from the game.
No worries. The Celtics were up 36 points at the time.
In fact, they had scored 79 points and there was still 8:23 left -- in the third quarter.
Pierce (24 points in 16 minutes) didn't return because he didn't have to. He retreated to the stationary bike in the corridor and was available for candids (many of the paying customers snapped away while The Truth blissfully pedaled to nowhere) the rest of the evening. Kevin Garnett, who checked out after 27 minutes, capped off his fourth quarter by demonstrating a little Gino jig in the huddle.
Somber Atlanta coach Larry Drew administered the proper tongue-lashing to his listless team, claiming his team was beaten in "every phase of the game," and "didn't respond very well" to Boston's pressure. He singled out his club's 17 turnovers, declaring, "I haven't seen that type of performance from our team in some time."
His team is facing a 3-1 deficit with a potential elimination game on Tuesday in Atlanta. He is hopeful Al Horford, who was a surprise activation for Game 4, will be even more effective now that he has seen some game action.
Horford hadn't played since Jan. 11 and it certainly showed during his first shift. But as the game wore on, the big fella regained some of his rhythm. Horford is an All-Star, a dangerous low-post presence who is matching up against a team that is thin up front. Together, he and Josh Smith, who also returned after missing Game 3 with a bum knee, provide a potentially formidable matchup problem for the Celtics should they continue to play their small lineup.
Mark that down as Reason 1,293 for Boston to fly to Atlanta and close out this series on Tuesday. Some other obvious reasons include providing their 30-something core with some much-needed rest. The walking wounded now includes Pierce (knee), Ray Allen (ankle), Mickael Pietrus (hamstring) and Avery Bradley (shoulder).
Boston's long and storied history has enabled the Celtics to experience both sides of a blowout. One game is simply that -- a separate entity that often has little or no bearing on the next outing.
If Doc Rivers wants to get cute, he should dig through the Celtics archives and dredge up the Memorial Day Massacre, that 148-114 whooping Boston laid on the hated Los Angeles Lakers in Game 1 of the 1985 NBA Finals. After watching the Celtics dismantle the Lakers on that day, it was difficult to fathom Magic Johnson and his boys ever winning another game. Current Celtics boss Danny Ainge torched L.A. for 15 points -- in the first quarter. Scott Wedman was a perfect 11-of-11 from the field, and the team shot 60 percent for the game.
You all remember what happened. The Lakers won the very next game 109-102 and went on to win the NBA championship in six games.
Paul Pierce was all of 7 years old when his beloved L.A. team pulled off that stunning turnaround.
"I was watching," he claimed. "Cheering for the Lakers."
The Hawks insist they, too, will prove to be resilient.
"You gotta throw this one away and move on," Teague insisted.
"You can't forget," countered Horford. "We're aware of it and what we're going to do is learn from it.
"You better believe we're coming. We're bringing it at home."
The storyline builds. It will be win or go home for the Hawks. The Celtics understand what's at stake. They'd just assume skip the drama of a Game 6 (or, for that matter, Game 7). Their mantra will be "win and go home."
If they shoot the ball the way they did in Game 4, they'll be headed back to Boston with a chance to rest and reflect. If they don't, the stage will be set for yet another night of great NBA theater.
The Celtics know one blowout win doesn't mean the Hawks are finished.