Updated: May 2, 2012, 2:54 AM ET

1. Will Smith Injury Ground Hawks For Good?

By John Hollinger

ATLANTA -- The Hawks were 90 percent of the way to being 90 percent there.

Up 11, at home, late in the third quarter against a reeling Celtics team missing its two backcourt stars, Atlanta was closing in on a 2-0 series lead ... an advantage that leads to a series win 94 percent of the time, historically.

And then, a dramatic reversal. The Hawks lost the lead and then their star forward and then the game, and now they're hanging on for dear life in the series after Boston rallied for an 87-80 win in Game 2. Game 3 will be Friday in Boston.

But hold off on the talk about the game for a minute, because a potentially much bigger issue for the rest of this series is the state of Josh Smith. The Atlanta forward again filled the stat sheet with 16 points, 12 rebounds and five assists but left the game with a sprained left knee with 4:20 to go and the Hawks trailing by two.

It appeared the knee had been bothering him for much of the fourth quarter, especially on a layup try at the 5:14 mark that he missed, but Smith may have aggravated whatever injury he had in a collision with Kevin Garnett just before he checked out. Television replays showed his knee giving a bit after Garnett bumped into him with 4:40 left, and 20 seconds later he was in the locker room and done for the night.

[+] EnlargeJosh Smith
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

This one isn't in Rose-Shumpert territory -- Smith walked off the court and left the arena under his own power -- but even a lesser injury would likely eliminate Smith for the rest of this series, and that in turn would effectively end any threat Atlanta posed to the Celtics.

Certainly that was the case in this game, as an Atlanta side that floundered through much of the fourth went completely off the rails once Smith checked out.

And Paul Pierce took care of the rest. Calling this a throwback performance damns with faint praise; this was one of the best games of a fabulous career. Pierce had 36 points, 14 rebounds and four assists while being asked to carry a Boston offense that was missing Rajon Rondo and sharpshooter Ray Allen.

"The only way we were going to win a game like that without Ray and Rondo," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers, "was if Paul had a game like this."

The veteran forward played 44 minutes but had enough in the tank to rise up for a fast-break dunk in the fourth quarter and then put the Hawks away with a dagger transition 3 ... and then capped his night by Tebowing at midcourt after making two free throws.

(This gesture was more family-friendly than the last famous one he made in this arena, when he was fined for flashing gang signs at Atlanta's Al Horford in the heated 2008 series between these two clubs.)

However, the real damage had been done earlier. Atlanta was up 11 with under three minutes to go in the third quarter, a lead that could have been even bigger had the Hawks' two best players not each blown wide-open breakaways -- Smith missed a showboat reverse dunk try in the first quarter and Johnson blew a clean transition layup early in the third.

The Celtics cut the lead to five when Doc Rivers decided to skip the final pit stop: While the Hawks went to their bench to start the fourth quarter, he left Pierce, Avery Bradley and Garnett on the floor. While Johnson, Jeff Teague and Smith rested to start the period -- Johnson and Teague for 2:23, Smith for 1:36 -- Boston seized the opening and tied the game, holding Atlanta scoreless for nearly four minutes to start the fourth.

It was a calculated gamble on the part of Rivers, but with two days off before Friday's Game 2 and Boston having granted its players plenty of rest in the final two weeks of the season, it paid off huge. Both Pierce and Garnett had enough spring to push Boston through the fourth, while Atlanta was burned by treating it too much like a regular-season game.

It wasn't the only factor. Boston visibly turned up its defensive pressure, to the point where the Hawks had trouble just initiating their sets. Little-used Marquis Daniels joined Garnett, Pierce, Bradley and Mickael Pietrus in a small-ball lineup that hounded the Hawks into a 4-of-19, six-turnover stinker of a quarter. With Atlanta missing centers Zaza Pachulia, Horford and, for the final four minutes, Smith, the Hawks couldn't punish the Celtics' small look.

"We tried to play small," Hawks coach Larry Drew said, "to match up with them and try to open the floor a little bit, but we didn't have that low-post presence that we needed."

Moreover, Johnson couldn't take advantage either. One wonders if the task of guarding Pierce most of the night wore him out; while Pierce had the luxury of guarding less threatening Hawks (such as Marvin Williams, who shot 1-for-6 in 21 impact-free minutes), Johnson's fourth quarter included two turnovers in a crucial three-possessions stretch and just one made basket. While his final line wasn't bad (7-of-17, 22 points), he seemed tentative to pull the trigger the entire night and lapsed into overdribbling at times.

Regardless, once his co-star Smith went out, the Hawks were at a huge disadvantage. And that disadvantage will persist throughout the series if Smith's knee keeps him out. Horford won't be back 'til the next round at the earliest (if there is one) and Pachulia is now targeting Game 5, perhaps optimistically. Atlanta faces the prospect of needing to win in Boston with Jason Collins, Ivan Johnson and Erick Dampier (remember him?) as its only bigs.

If they'd managed to take a 2-0 lead to Beantown as well, the Hawks might feel a little better about their chances.

Now? It just feels like a wasted opportunity, and one they won't get back without Smith.

Dimes past: 16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20-21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 28 | 29 | 30

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