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Shaky Celtics pull out win in Game 3, but know they must improve

by | CBSSports.com College Basketball Insider
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Kevin Garnett and Doc Rivers know the Celtics will need to improve their game. (US Presswire)  
Kevin Garnett and Doc Rivers know the Celtics will need to improve their game. (US Presswire)  

BOSTON -- Rajon Rondo returned from his one-game suspension and Ray Allen made his first appearance in nearly a month.

As if this one didn't appear enough of a mismatch, as the Celtics returned home with no shortage of momentum after a critical Game 2 victory in Atlanta, the Hawks were without Josh Smith.

Yet there was Atlanta's Willie Green -- yes, Willie Green -- launching a potential game-winning jumper with 18 seconds left in the game.

"We definitely got away with one," Celtics coach Doc Rivers admitted following Friday night's 90-84 overtime win that gave Boston a 2-1 lead in the best-of-7 opening-round series. "We never got into a rhythm."

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Paul Pierce, who erupted for 36 points in Game 2, made just three field goals all night. Rondo was 7 for 22 from the field and Allen misfired on all four of his 3-pointers. Starting guard Avery Bradley barely played in the second half after suffering a shoulder injury that put his status for Sunday's game in question.

But the Celtics came out with the victory. Well, escaped with the victory.

Rondo was passive in the first half, but then took control after the break, became assertive and appeared to put the Celtics in position to pull away in the fourth quarter. His pinpoint pass on the break to a wide-open Pierce, who connected on a 3-pointer from the left wing, gave Boston a 70-64 advantage with 8:49 remaining. The lead was extended to 11 with less than seven minutes remaining, but was squandered following Joe Johnson's long 3-pointer over Mickael Pietrus with 1:23 left in regulation.

Atlanta, with its patchwork lineup down the stretch that featured Johnson, Jeff Teague, washed-up ex-superstar Tracy McGrady, Green and Jason Collins, had its chances to win this game and alter the complexion of the entire series -- against a Boston team that was as healthy as it may be for the remainder of the postseason.

Instead, Boston held court at home and was able to breathe a huge sigh of relief.

"We didn't play extremely well tonight," Pietrus said.

"We have to play better," Rivers admitted.

That may depend if Smith returns for the Hawks.

Allen gutted it out on the injured ankle that has sidelined him since April 10 and wound up scoring 13 points in 37 minutes. Pierce was a perfect 14 of 14 from the charity stripe and wound up with a hard-earned 21 points. Kevin Garnett (20 points, 13 rebounds) may have accounted for the game's most important play, a follow-up dunk off Rondo's miss with 27 seconds left in overtime that made certain the Hawks wouldn't have another chance. Pietrus did a more-than-admirable job on Johnson, one of the game's most prolific one-on-one scorers.

"We found a way to get the win," Rondo said.

But it came against an Atlanta team that basically had two offensive weapons -- Johnson and Teague -- with Smith and Al Horford on the bench. The Hawks' duo combined for 52 of the team's 84 points -- and McGrady appeared to find the fountain of youth for a stretch and added a dozen points in the loss. Atlanta is so thin up front that Erick Dampier was forced to take the court for 22-plus minutes.

Rivers said he will pull a rarity and give this aging and battered group the day off from practice on Saturday in preparation for Game 4. Rondo, who had a triple-double, and Pierce both played in excess of 47 minutes while Garnett logged 42.

"I was worried going into overtime, just looking at Paul, Kevin and Rondo. They didn't look that fresh. And honestly I looked at the other team; they looked pretty bad, too."

While Rivers sounded like a man with few answers when talking about Allen's status for Sunday and the remainder of the playoffs, the future Hall of Famer took the podium and appeared optimistic about his future this postseason.

"It felt great starting the game and then going into the half it tightened up on me," he said. "Now it aches. ... But I'm in a good place."

You would think Boston would be in a good place as well, with Rondo and Allen back in the fold and Philadelphia having taken a 2-1 series lead over a Derrick Rose-less Chicago team that went into the playoffs as the top seed in the East.

"We're fortunate," Rivers said as he shakes his head while walking into Boston's locker room.

As long as the Celtics don't play like that again.

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