by Jonathan Evans / @jre18
Kevin Garnett put it best after Game 1: Rajon Rondo is the black lion, the head that forms their Voltron. That machine was in full effect in Game 4 as Rondo led the Celtics to a 102-79 dismantling of the Hawks. It’s been said before and it’ll surely be said again, but when their system is clicking as it was on Sunday night, they’re without a doubt still a threat to win it all. But as good as they looked, the sight of Paul Pierce crumpled on the parquet was a reminder of how quickly it can all go away and Voltron could be watching the finals on TV with the rest of us.
Injuries have been a depressing narrative of these Playoffs. Certainly the fragility of it all is not lost on these Celtics (see Garnett’s knee in 2009 or Rondo’s elbow last year). Despite a roster that’s starting to look of a triage unit, the Celtics are showing a perseverance and toughness that should pay dividends down the line.
As usual, Boston’s success in Game 4 began with their defense. They jumped out the gate active and aggressive, cutting off lanes, deflecting balls, hitting the boards and forcing turnovers. By the end of the first quarter, the Hawks already had 8 turnovers and were down by 13. Things got worse before they got better for an Atlanta team that couldn’t respond to Boston’s aggressiveness.
“Our defensive energy is what got us going,” Doc said afterwards. “We had over 24 deflections at halftime, if we have that for a game we’re happy.” “Everybody ran the floor and that gave us space. We had a great rhythm offensively. When you make shots like that and defend like that it’s tough to be beat.”
Leading the charge was Rondo. The black lion totaled 20 points, 16 dimes and just 1 turnover. At this point 16 assists isn’t surprising, but the 20 points on 8-of-11 shooting surely is. Rondo hit two threes and confidently knocked down jumpers all game.
“If he’s hitting the jumpshot there’s no way to guard him,” Dooling said of Rondo. “But he’s the best passer in the game and we need him to be our facilitator too.”
Rondo did both with aplomb all game, leaving Atlanta helpless to respond. The Hawks were thoroughly outclassed with Jeff Teague being one of the few Atlanta players to show a pulse in this one. Horford and Smith each showed flashes for Atlanta, but were by and large rusty and ineffective in their returns to action.
“We were beat in every phase of the game and it started the first six minutes of the game,” Drew said. “We didn’t response to their pressure or aggressiveness. We had too many breakdowns in too many areas.”
Nothing embodies the truth about these Celtics chances more than The Truth himself. Pierce put Boston on his back with a game high 24 points on 10-of-13 shooting. Locked in, Pierce rose to the moment with big shot after big shot from all over the floor. In a flash, the cheers of joy turned into a stunned silence when Pierce fell to the court with an apparent knee injury. Turns out, Pierce sprained his knee in practice and the injury flared up after a collision with Smith.
“He was just dribbling the ball and went to the floor in shootaround,” Doc said of Pierce. “When he went down it didn’t look good. I don’t know if he can play the next game and I can say that about three or four guys.”
Indeed, what seemed at the time to be curious substitution patterns was a reflection of who was healthy enough to play. “[Pietrus]’s hamstring, Paul’s knee, Avery’s shoulder, Ray’s foot,” Doc said rattling off the C’s various ailments. “The whole game I felt like, Were there enough guys to put in the game? I was happy everyone kept their focus.”
That last point is the most telling for the Celtics. Being tough enough to play through the pain isn’t sufficient; Smith and Horford did that to no avail for Atlanta. The bigger challenge is focus, keeping the machine running smoothly and seizing the moment when it comes. Getting quality minutes from Daniels, Dooling and others certainly helps stem the tide but more than that, it’s about knowing when to go for the kill. Pierce, essentially playing on one leg, re-entered the game in the third quarter and hit two threes in the first three minutes to put the nails in Atlanta’s coffin. Message sent. Pierce checked out with Boston up 36 and after some victory laps on the stationary bike, rested on the bench with his banged-up mates.
With the statement made, Voltron could sit disassembled, wrapped in ice, and enjoy some Gino Time. No doubt they’ll look to assemble again for Game 5, attempting to take the next step in a Playoff run they hope is just getting started.