Updated: December 18, 2008, 8:00 PM ET

Celtics Ground Hawks To Stretch Win Streak To 16

ATLANTA -- Now I appreciate what it means to be a defending champion, and the target that championship teams have on their back every night. Boston's 88-85 win over the Hawks was one of the most memorable games of the early season, but doubly notable because it was really two games in one.

For the Celtics, it was a random regular-season game on a Wednesday in December.

For Atlanta, it was the biggest regular-season game in at least 10 years.

"We play in this atmosphere every night," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "It can only pay dividends for us in the end."

That difference was almost immediately apparent, even before the game started. In normal midweek games in Atlanta, Ludacris doesn't perform at halftime, Dr. J doesn't take in the action, the local paper doesn't send four writers and national TV cameras aren't crowding the court in warm-ups.

Actually, the latter point is true for any Hawks game. This was the first regular-season national TV game for Atlanta in half a decade, and the only one scheduled for them all season.

It lived up to the hype too, as once again Boston brought out the best in the Hawks -- and their normally docile home crowd, which turns positively hostile at the sight of green jerseys.

After a closing stretch that featured five lead changes on five straight possessions in the final 1:38, the Celtics prevailed, thanks mainly to one big play Boston made (Kendrick Perkins's block on Joe Johnson with nine seconds left) and one the Hawks didn't (Johnson's free throw miss with 2.7 ticks showing).

Doing so gave the Celtics their 16th consecutive win, and with home games coming against Chicago, New York and Philadelphia, it seems likely they'll be gunning to make it 20 when they face the Lakers in a Finals rematch on Christmas Day. The Celtics also improved to 24-2 on the year, and are just two wins away from matching the best start ever with two losses -- the 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers and the 1969-70 Knicks both started 26-2. They can break that record at home against the 76ers next Tuesday.

Perhaps most importantly, Boston avenged the three consecutive road losses they suffered here in last season's playoffs. And in a departure from the norm, it was Kevin Garnett who made the big plays down the stretch after a slow start.

"I was sitting next to him in a timeout and said, 'Look, you've gotta take us home,'" said Rajon Rondo.

That he did. Atlanta led 72-66 with 6:48 left and seemed poised to pull away before Garnett took over. He did it, unusually, by going to the low post -- an area in which he's rarely been seen lately. He started by scoring on the block against Josh Smith while drawing a foul, then stepped out and hit a jumper from his familiar perch at the top of the key. On his next post-up he dropped in a perfect pass to a cutting Rondo for the lead, completing an 8-0 Boston run to put the Celtics ahead.

He wasn't done. Garnett fed Perkins for a basket and a foul, and got so amped up he slapped Perkins in the chest four times while yelling encouragement (or whatever it is KG yells out there). And after Atlanta briefly regained the momentum courtesy of a vicious Smith cradle-and-cram over Perkins, Garnett re-established order by scoring on three of the next four trips.

But the final two buckets were the most impressive. With 1:38 left, the Celtics had the ball with the shot clock winding down. Rondo dribbled through the lane and came out the other side without an opening for himself or a teammate, leaving him marooned at the top of the key with five showing on the clock. Garnett was battling Al Horford in the post and commanded Rondo to give him a lob.

"I read his lips and he told me to throw it," Rondo said. "Usually it's eye contact, but this time he said, 'Throw it.'"

Garnett took the lob and slammed it home to give Boston a temporary lead. He followed that up on a post-up bucket with 30.8 seconds left, making a difficult hook shot in the lane to put the Celtics ahead for good.

"Kevin hit two unbelievable shots," Rivers said.

From 6:58 on, Garnett was 5-for-5 from the field and scored or assisted on 15 of Boston's 22 points to give them the lead; he also got the rebound off Johnson's missed free throw in the waning seconds to seal the win.

Garnett's torrid finish allowed Boston to survive in an arena that a year ago proved its nemesis. As a result, the streak -- which the Celtics profess no interest in -- goes on.

Perhaps more interesting is that the Celtics gave no indication that this game was any more important to them than other contests, even given what happened in last year's playoffs.

In other words, at this point it's a one-way rivalry -- Atlanta sees the Celtics as rivals, and the Celtics see Atlanta as just another Gollum jealously eyeing their rings. That disparity goes a long way toward explaining why the Hawks have played them so tough.

"If they played everyone else the way they play us they'd be a top five team," Rondo said.

It also makes what Boston has done in the early season even more impressive. The Celtics aren't sneaking up on anybody -- they're getting every opponent's best shot, and they're cruising anyway. With three more efforts like this one, they'll be in the history books at 27-2 when they make their return to L.A. -- and face yet another team seeking vengeance against them.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.

Dimes past: Dec. 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6-7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13-14 | 15 | 16 | 17

Boston 76ers
By Royce Webb | ESPN.com

The Boston Celtics have won two dozen games with only two losses -- and only two teams have done that before, setting a standard that the Celtics need only two wins to match.

The 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers, led by Wilt Chamberlain on the court and ESPN's Dr. Jack Ramsay in the front office, started 26-2 before losing to the Celtics on Dec. 11, 1966. The Sixers would get the last laugh that season, knocking the Celtics out of the playoffs on the way to the NBA championship, the only title in the 1960s not won by the C's.

Three years later, the New York Knicks also started 26-2 before the Cincinnati Royals (now the Sacramento Kings) beat the Bockers on Dec. 9, 1969, behind Oscar Robertson's 31 points. Like the Sixers before them, the Knicks rode their smooth start all the way to the title. That championship run is famous for New York's Game 7 win over the Los Angeles Lakers, featuring Willis Reed making an emotional entrance and Walt Frazier doing the rest in a 36-point, 19-assist, 7-rebound performance.

If the Celtics can take care of the Bulls on Friday night, then they can zoom past the Knicks and Sixers in the record book by beating the Knicks and Sixers next week. On Sunday night, the C's host the latest version of the Knickerbockers, featuring David Lee inside and Chris Duhon at the point -- no more Willis and Clyde to contend with. And on Tuesday, the 76ers head to Boston to renew their old rivalry, with perhaps a 27-2 start at stake for the C's -- the NBA's first-ever 27-2 start, that is.

If they can handle those three sub.-500 teams at home, that gives the Celtics' Christmas Day game on ABC against the Lakers even more sparkle, because the C's will be looking to extend their record to 28-2 and their winning streak to 20 -- which would be tied for the third-longest winning streak in NBA history, the record being 33 straight wins by the 1971-72 Lakers of Jerry West and Wilt the Stilt.

(By the way, with the Celtics not even halfway to 33 straight wins, let's note that they could win every game for the next month and still come up short of the Lakers' streak. But if somehow the Celtics rev this thing up to 40-2, they can tie the Lakers on Jan. 19 in a home game against Phoenix.)

But here are the most impressive numbers to know: 76, 6 and 18.

76: The number of games Boston is on pace to win.

6: The number of games Boston is on pace to lose.

18: The number of championship banners that will be hanging in Boston's rafters if their season ends the same way the season ended for the NBA's two previous 24-2 teams.

Royce Webb is an NBA editor for ESPN.com.



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Extreme Behavior
By Maurice Brooks

Danny Granger, Pacers: This time, Indiana didn't waste his 40-point effort. Granger scored a career-best 42 in a loss to the Pistons Friday, but came away with a better result this time, dropping 41 points in a win over the Warriors.

New Jersey Nets: Playing at home, they held the Jazz to just seven points in the first quarter on the way to a 20-point lead and still managed to blow the game by allowing Utah to score 72 after intermission.

"I'm bewildered by my team. I've got a really bad taste in my mouth. It was a very poor all-around effort by us."

-- Bucks coach Scott Skiles after his team fell apart in the fourth quarter against the Sixers in a 93-88 loss.

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