The Boston Celtics have asked so much of Kevin Garnett this season. They’ve asked him to play with few days off and even fewer days for practice. They’ve asked him to play center on team without a shred of depth at the big-man positions.
And with the Celtics’ best chance to close out their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the Atlanta Hawks coming in Game 6 Thursday night at TD Garden, they asked him to carry the team home.
The Celtics asked, and as he’s done all season long, Garnett answered. Garnett scored 28 points, grabbed 14 rebounds, blocked five shots and stole three passes, helping the Celtics edge past the Hawks, 83-80, and clinch the series in six games.
Garnett’s turn-around jumper with 8:41 left in the fourth capped a 7-0 fourth-quarter run that pushed the Celtics’ lead to 74-65. Having already played Garnett for 35 minutes, Doc Rivers subbed out Garnett two minutes later.
The decision proved costly, as the Hawks went on a 10-2 over the next 1:42. Now free of Garnett’s pesky defense, center Al Horford fueled the charge with six points. He finished with 15 points and nine rebounds in a Herculean 46 minutes.
Garnett came back in with 3:51 to go, but even that couldn’t halt Atlanta’s run, as Josh Smith (18 points, nine rebounds) and Horford put the Hawks up 79-76 with two more unanswered baskets.
Needing something from someone other than Garnett, Paul Pierce cut the Hawks’ lead to one with a layup with just over two minutes left. Garnett capped two straight Celtics defensive stops with two emphatic rebounds, then put the Celtic back up 80-79 with another turn-around jumper.
The Celtics crushed the Hawks in the paint, out-scoring them 42-30. They also out-rebounded the Hawks by four, recording more offensive and defensive boards.
Smith missed a 23-footer on the Hawks’ next possession, and Ray Allen went to the line, draining one of two for the two-point lead. Pierce then blocked Marvin Williams (16 points, eight rebounds) with 3.2 seconds left for the 11th Celtics block of the night, but Marquis Daniels – who entered for the game for the first time just six seconds prior – fouled Horford twice.
The second foul put Horford on the line, but he missed his first free throw. Perhaps wanting to miss the second, Horford sank it, and the Celtics inbounded successfully to Pierce. Despite a sprained MCL, Pierce still played 40 minutes Thursday, capping his 18-point night with two free throws to clinch the game.
The Celtics’ best stretch came in the second period. Down 31-25 with 8:11 left, the Celtics went on a 16-0 run to put themselves up 41-31.
Pierce’s and-1 layup cut the Hawks’ lead to 31-30, then Rajon Rondo (14 points, eight assists) followed up a basket with a block on Smith on the other end.
Garnett’s layup put the Celtics up 34-31, then a steal from Pierce led to an Avery Bradley 21-footer and a five-point lead. The Celtics pushed the tempo in the second, exhausting the Hawks defensively and leading to five of the Hawks’ 13 turnovers.
The Hawks used back-to-back three-pointers from Williams and point guard Jeff Teague to cut the Celtics’ lead to 53-51 with seven minutes left in the third. The Hawks shot 7-for-15 from beyond the arc Thursday, while the Celtics went just 2-for-10.
One of those treys came with two minutes left in the third when, up just five, Allen drained one from the corner to push the lead to 65-57. Allen, clearly still limited by bone spurs, struggled all night with getting open, finishing with just seven points on 1-of-6 shooting. As perhaps the biggest sign Allen still isn’t 100 percent, he missed two free throws in Game 6.
Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals kicks off Saturday against the Philadelphia 76ers at TD Garden.