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Shaquille O’Neal won the opening tip-off. That was the last time the Atlanta Hawks and the Boston Celtics were tied. After that, it was a constant up-hill battle for the Hawks, who fell more and more behind as the Celtics starters teed off in the first quarter and the Hawks could not respond. The Celtics scored 39 points in the first frame, building a 26-point lead that was more than adequate to power Boston to a 99-76 victory in Atlanta Monday night. The Hawks never got closer than 18 points after the first quarter.
Three Celtics had double-doubles, each uniquely contributing to the Celtics’ first victory in two seasons against the Hawks. O’Neal scored 13 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, including three offensive rebounds. O’Neal’s upper-body presence was on full-display on one particular sequence midway through the first quarter. O’Neal pulled down an offensive rebound, then missed a layup attempt. Refusing to give up, O’Neal continued to battle under the basket for another rebound, until eventually the ball found its way to Nate Robinson, who promptly buried a three-pointer. O’Neal then dunked it to push the score to 13-3, pulled down a defensive rebound, then dunked it again before sitting down with six left in the first.
Robinson, meanwhile, continued to excel as the fill-in starting point guard. Robinson scored 16 and dished out 10 assists. He sank four three-pointers Monday, including one from 23 feet away in the first. He also nailed two consecutive treys in the third to push the lead to 85-54. Robinson came up limping after his last three-pointer and was taken out of the game. Doc Rivers later said it was just cramps, but Robinson never re-entered the game, likely because he’d already played 30 minutes and the lead was insurmountable.
Kevin Garnett had the last double-double for the Celtics, scoring 17 and rebounding 11. Garnett was also the most accurate shooter for Boston, going 8-10. The Celtics starters shot very accurately in general, hitting 68.2 percent of their shots. Hawks starters, meanwhile, shot less than 30 percent and combined for only 27 points (Celtics starters combined for 68).
While Paul Pierce did not get a double-double, he did score in double figures, knocking down 13 in 27 minutes. Pierce also had an emphatic and-1 play in the third, where he grabbed a Garnett-miss midair, got fouled and still laid it in, screaming in the process. Pierce sank his free throw, pushing the lead to 79-47.
The offense was definitely firing on all cylinders Monday, with every Celtic scoring at least two points. They also won the assist battle 26-21. The play most emblematic of their balanced attack came with 25 seconds left in the second quarter. Robinson brought the ball up the court, then dished it to Garnett, who fed it Glen Davis (seven points, five rebounds) underneath the basket. Davis dribbled it and found he had no easy shot, so he passed to Ray Allen, who then dished it to Pierce. After Pierce up-faked the three, he drove to the basket, only to get stuffed. The ball started to go out of bounds, but Garnett leaped out of nowhere to catch it and hurl it back into play. Waiting for the pass was Allen, who sank the three-pointer from the top of the arc as the shot-clock expired. The trey put the Celtics up 64-42 going into the fourth, and for all intents and purposes was the last nail in the coffin for a badly beaten Atlanta Hawks team.
What enabled the Celtics to keep building their lead and not suffer a typical late-game meltdown was their defense. The Celtics overpowered the Hawks, grabbing 50 rebounds to the Hawks’ 30. This overpowering was also evident in the paint, where the Celtics outscored the Hawks 40-24. But even when the Celtics had a huge lead and began exclusively using reserves, the defense refused to back down. They continued to rotate, run back on turnovers to prevent fast breaks (Atlanta only scored four), and swarm when they had to. They rarely looked out of position, forcing 12 turnovers and blocking six shots, with all six coming in the second half.
Marquis Daniels (four points, four rebounds) led the way with three blocked shots, but perhaps more impressive was Delonte West (six points, three rebounds, three assists). Both of West’s blocks came in the fourth quarter against larger Hawks shooting from point-blank range. His first came against center Zaza Pachulia, where West jumped slightly prematurely but hanged in the air long enough to swat Pachulia’s shot with his left hand. His second game against shooting guard Jordan Crawford, this time going up at the same time and again blocking the shot with his outstretched left arm. West’s high-flying antics were on display on offense, too, with West leaping in the air to collect his own rebound, then sinking it, in the first quarter.
The Celtics defense limited the Hawks to just 34.6 percent overall shooting, despite using their bench for a combined 111 minutes (starters combined for 128).