|Paul Pierce reacts after hitting a 3-pointer in the Celtics' blowout victory. (US Presswire)|
BOSTON -- Shortly after draining his fourth 3-pointer and putting up his 24th point of the night just minutes into the second half, Paul Pierce decided to get some real work in against the Atlanta Hawks. So he hopped on the stationary bike a few steps from the court, where he spent nearly the remainder of the third quarter in an effort to keep his sore knee loose.
The pedals certainly gave more resistance than the Hawks, who were manhandled by Pierce and the Celtics on Sunday night to the tune of a 101-79 loss that wasn't nearly as close as the score indicated.
"We were beaten in every phase of the game," Atlanta coach Larry Drew said after the drubbing. "I haven't seen that type of performance in our team in quite some time."
Now the best-of-7 series shifts back to Atlanta, where the Hawks will need to reel off three consecutive victories to advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals.
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There was cause for optimism in Atlanta coming into the contest. Hawks coach Larry Drew had his bookend forwards -- Josh Smith and Al Horford -- back in the lineup for the first time since Jan. 11, when Horford went down with what appeared to be a season-ending injury to his pectoral muscle.
Smith sat out the previous game, an overtime setback in Game 3. When Horford checked in midway through the first quarter, it was still a game with the Celtics leading 19-11.
But then the Celtics turned into, well, the Celtics from 2008.
"They've got like seven All-Stars," Atlanta's young point guard Jeff Teague said following the rout. "They are tough when they're playing like that. They came out blazing, making every shot and they are tough to guard when they are doing that."
Pierce, who injured his knee earlier in the day when he tripped over a teammate's foot in shootaround, was dominant in the 16-plus minutes he spent on the court.
"I didn't think he was going to play," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said of Pierce. "It didn't look good."
Pierce didn't just take the court -- he gutted it out and was sensational, making 10-of-13 shots from the field and 4-of-6 from beyond the arc.
Following the game, Pierce tweeted: "I think the knee is going to be fine glad I didn't have to play a lot of minutes tonight to rest it good win tonight fellas."
Rajon Rondo's head is always a cause for concern, but he was locked into the game. Aggressive from the jump, Rondo finished with 13 first-half assists and even knocked down a pair of 3-pointers. Ray Allen, who has played just once in the past three-plus weeks, was effective in limited time -- and so was Avery Bradley, whose status was uncertain coming into the game due to a shoulder injury.
"It's definitely the best we've played in this series," Pierce said.
As poorly as the Celtics played in escaping with an overtime win two nights earlier, that's how sharp they looked on Sunday night. Boston's trademark defense was on display and its spacing on the offensive end was terrific.
This team is certainly potent enough to roll past the 76ers -- a team that holds a 3-1 lead over the Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls -- in the next round. And who knows? Maybe the Celtics can even challenge D-Wade, LeBron and the Miami Heat.
But this Celtics team remains one that is difficult to get a handle on. This same group that couldn't score two nights earlier shot a sizzling 63.6 percent in the first half en route to a 64-41 lead.
Leads are rarely safe in the NBA, even when they soar in excess of 20. But when Pierce knocked down a 3-pointer with 6:14 left in the second quarter that put Boston up 51-27, there wasn't anyone in the TD Garden -- including Drew -- who thought the Hawks had enough in the tank to put this one in question.
Watching the Jumbotron became far more entertaining the rest of the way.
Rivers was able to give his aging stars some much-needed rest. Garnett played 27 minutes, Allen logged 19 and Pierce's night -- except for his 10-minute stint on the bike -- was done after 16 minutes and 37 seconds.
"For us, the rest was definitely helpful," Allen said.
Imperative may be a more appropriate word. The Celtics need to put this series away Tuesday in Atlanta to potentially give guys like KG, Allen and Pierce extra time off in preparation for what could be a deeper postseason run than anyone anticipated.
"You don't want to bring it back to Boston because anything can happen," Pierce said.
All that would do, though, is prolong the inevitable.