- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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ATLANTA -- The Boston Celtics will have to do it the hard way. It's really the only way they know how.
Allergic to simplicity, the Celtics couldn't close out their Eastern Conference first-round series with the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday night at Philips Arena.
The Celtics fumbled away an early double-digit cushion, came out with no urgency in the second half and soon was staring at a double-digit deficit. A feverish late rally came up short when -- maybe appropriately -- they couldn't even get up a final shot to seal an 87-86 Game 5 loss.
The Celtics still hold a 3-2 series lead as the scene shifts back to Boston for Game 6 on Thursday night at TD Garden.
Boston players would much rather be engaged in other activities that night. Paul Pierce, who couldn't help but admit to being a step slow because of an ailing left knee, could have kicked his feet up for some extended rest. Rajon Rondo, who spearheaded the feverish second-half rally, could have gone shopping for some new zebra swag for his increasingly frequent trips to the postgame podium.
Or maybe Boston could have gathered en masse to watch Game 6 of the Bulls-76ers series and started scouting its second-round opponent.
Instead, the Celtics will once again attempt to do what they couldn't do on Tuesday: Put together 48 minutes of consistent, playoff-caliber basketball and end the Hawks' season.
Conventional wisdom says the Celtics should benefit from being back home and have an excellent chance to do what they should have done Tuesday. But as Pierce lamented, the Hawks have confidence now, gutting out a must-win game and doing so with a familiar starting group that's been reassembled for the first time since January and provided the spark Atlanta coach Larry Drew had hoped for.
The Hawks were lucky to escape the first quarter with a mere six-point deficit after shooting just 28.6 percent, turning the ball over six times for 10 points, and letting Pierce get hot early.
They atoned in the second quarter and a late quartet of trifectas allowed the team to enter halftime tied with the Celtics.
For Boston, it should have been simple at that point. Even after giving up as much as a 10-point first-half lead, the Celtics just needed to suck it up for 24 minutes and they would have a little midweek vacation while waiting to find out their opponent in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Maybe it shouldn't surprise anyone, given Boston's inability to maintain any sort of consistency this season, that the Hawks dominated the early portion of the third quarter, built a 12-point lead and refused Boston's invitation to dust off their golf clubs by night's end.
No, even as Rondo put on an absolute show to close out the third quarter, scoring three buckets in a 51-second span and feeding Ryan Hollins on the first of two second-half alley-oops to cut the Hawks' lead back to 2, the Celtics just couldn't find that killer instinct.
It wasn't for a lack of trying, at least with Rondo. In the closing moments, he stole an inbounds pass with the Hawks clinging to a one-point lead and less than 10 seconds to go. But the Celtics were out of timeouts, Rondo had to rush the ball upcourt, and he couldn't get off a final shot, losing the ball after Al Horford denied a baseline drive.
The Celtics tipped their caps to the Hawks, but said their focus was on their own locker room.
"I don't think it's about [the Hawks], I think it's about us," said Brandon Bass, deflecting concern about Atlanta's lineup swap with a healthy Horford rejoining the starting group. "Our approach, we've just got to come out with a better approach next game, continue it throughout the game for 48 minutes, and I think you'll see a different outcome."
So why were there lapses on Tuesday?
"Man, things happen -- it's basketball," Bass said. "We just want to come out and play Celtics basketball and get that victory."
Only eight teams have rallied from a 3-1 hole since the 16-team playoff format was instituted during the 1983-84 postseason. It's unlikely the Celtics have to worry about that sort of collapse, but with a potential Game 7 back in Atlanta, it puts a little extra pressure on Thursday's showdown in Boston.
As Pierce lamented, "Now the Hawks got some confidence, some momentum, so we have to go home and get the job done."
That's easier said than done. Just like everything the Celtics have set out to accomplish this season.
25mEthan Sherwood Strauss
1dMatt Walks, ESPN.com