Joe Johnson couldn’t be stopped. The top seeded Celtics had no answer for the explosive leading Hawks’ scorer who scored 20 of his game high 35 in a fourth quarter comeback to lead the big underdog to a second straight home win 97-92 in Game Four-leveling the best-of-seven first round series at two games apiece.
In a back and forth riveting playoff game at Phillips Arena which saw the eighth seeded Hawks comeback from a 16-3 hole to take an eight-point lead before a strong third quarter by Boston put them down 10, the home team rallied outscoring the Celts 32-17 in the last 12 minutes to win their second straight. Most expected them to go quietly and get swept after not being competitive in the first two games but Atlanta had other ideas taking Game Three 102-93 and using that strong fourth quarter to square the series and put all tons of pressure on Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray AllenÂ along with the rest of former Hawk point guardÂ Doc Rivers’ team.
It was Johnson and super athletic deluxe Josh Smith (28 pts, 12 of 13 FT, Hawks franchise playoff record seven blocks, six rebounds) who took all the Hawks’ shots combining to score all 32 points dominating the paint against a normally strong Boston defensive club. In particular, they weren’t able to shutdown Johnson, who toasted Allen on effective pick n’ roll isolation all quarter scoring on an array of floaters.Â Maybe the biggest shot in a game where his team trailed 75-65 after being outscored 27-14 in the third was a classic schoolyard crossover where defender Leon Powe was so badly faked out that he fell down allowing Johnson to step back and drain a trey from the left arc, putting Mike Woodson’s team up four with 4:41 left as a raucous crowd erupted invoking memories of Atlanta-Boston series past which featured NBA Hall of Famers Dominique Wilkins and Larry Bird.
At one point, Johnson scored nine straight including a couple of ridiculous finishes where he sliced and diced the Boston D. Along with some money free throw making from Smith, they wouldn’t allow Atlanta to lose insuring that there would be another home game in the series.
Two late James Posey three’s weren’t enough as Johnson and Smith finished off the Celts at the line. In fact, the dynamic duo finished with 18 of Atlanta’s 29 free throw makes. Overall, the Hawks shot lights out going 29 for 33 as compared to the Celtics’ 10 of 18. That was the biggest difference.
They also got invaluable contributions from rookie Al Horford on the defensive glass as he finished with a game high 13 boards. Josh Childress came off the bench to grab nine rebounds including a big offensive board late to get a new shotclock. He also had a highlight reel tomahawk jam netting four points and two assists in nearly 32 minutes.
The game also featured some nastiness with Garnett and Atlanta backup center Zaza Pachulia going nose to nose before cooler heads prevailed. Pachulia took exception to a KG elbow going right after the Boston superstar nearly butting him. Both got T’s as did Sam Cassell and Johnson in which each respective coach came out making certain nobody from the bench got involved.
Good thing too because league commish David Stern was in the house looking on. There could be fines but it doesn’t look like there will be any suspensions which would be the best case scenario with a best two-of-three deciding this series.
“We all know heâ€™s a great player,â€ Pachulia later indicated of Garnett who finished with 20 points, nine rebounds and six steals in a losing cause. â€œHeâ€™s done a lot of good things for the league. Heâ€™s a future Hall of Famer. But it doesnâ€™t matter when weâ€™re on the court.â€
â€œI donâ€™t take anything from anybody,â€ Pachulia added. â€œThe message was, â€˜Weâ€™re right here. Even if we lose, itâ€™s not going to be easy.â€â€™
Two Advance: In the other two first round games played Monday night, both Orlando and the Lakers advanced to the Conference Semis.
The Magic got another 20/20 performance from man child Dwight Howard (21 pts, 21 rebs) as they eliminated the Raptors posting a 102-92 Game Five home win.
Howard paced a balanced attack which saw all five starters hit for double digits including a double/double from Rashard Lewis (18 and 13), 19 from Jameer Nelson and Hedo Turkoglu’s 12 along with a game high nine assists.
Turkoglu was presented with the NBA’s Most Improved Player before the game beating out Memphis’ Rudy Gay and Portland’s LaMarcus Aldridge. Reserve guard Keith Bogans also came off the bench nailing three triples for 11 points, six boards and two assists in 35 minutes.
Toronto was paced by star power forward Chris Bosh’ 16 and nine rebounds. Supersubs Jason Kapono, Carlos Delfino and Jose Calderon each netted double figures combining for five treys and 39 points. Raptor point guard T.J. Ford added 14 but only five assists while turning it over four times.
Orlando now will await the 76ers-Pistons winner. That series is tied 2-2.
Meanwhile out West, the top seeded Lakers advanced with a hard fought 107-101 Game Four road win over the Nuggets, sweeping their talented opponent out of the playoffs. It’s the fifth consecutive year Denver’s bowed out in the first round. According to TNT, the Nuggets became the first 50-win team in playoff history to be swept in Round One.
Kobe Bryant came alive in the final quarter scoring 14 of his 31 in the last five and a half following a 17+ minute drought. Making an assortment of Kobe-esque shots as only the Laker superstar can do, he carried his team down the stretch in shooting down a more pesky Denver team finishing them off to advance to Round Two where they’ll play either Utah or Houston. The Jazz lead that series 3-1.
Bryant is a lot like Michael Jordan in that when his team needs it most, he’ll step up and make the very difficult big shots which provide sparks. This was a fun game to watch with the Nuggets refusing to go away thanks to some ridiculous hot shooting from sixth man J.R. Smith. The 22 year-old out of Freehold, New Jersey hit a couple of deep three’s including a 28-footer. That along with a three-point play put Denver back ahead by one 96-95 withÂ over three minutes to play.
But a tough Kobe trademark 15-foot floater along with some great passing to setup an uncontested Luke Walton trey from the right corner put Los Angeles on top 100-96 with 2:37 left.
The Nuggets never seriously threatened again. It was the first time in franchise history they were swept out of the postseason.
â€œIâ€™ve said all along, when they play the right way, theyâ€™re fun guys to coach.â€
The dilemma for Denver moving forward is how do they change that chaotic style into a winner. They can score with Carmelo AnthonyÂ (21 pts,Â 11 rebs) and Allen IversonÂ (22 pts, 10-of-22 FG, only 2 assists) plus Smith, who becomesÂ a free agent this summer. However, where’s the D? Marcus Camby plays hard as does Kenyon Martin, who has never quite fit in since bolting the Nets.
Unless Denver alters their style meaning not as much reliance on the offensive end at one-on-one emphasizing better team oriented play in the halfcourt set, they’ll continue to win games but not when it counts most.
It’s high time for an adjustment.