BOSTON -- For too many nights throughout this crowded and exhausting year, the results haven't reflected the performances. Too many games have been decided by the overwhelming circumstances of each team's schedule. This was not one of those games.
This 88-86 overtime victory over the Hawks on Wednesday said something important about the Celtics, who completed a significant back-to-back after upsetting the Heat on Tuesday in Miami.
The Hawks had been resting for three days. Their loss dropped them into a conference tie with the fourth-seeded Celtics, who control the tiebreaker, going 18-8 since the All-Star break.
Heading into their shortened training camp in December, Boston coach Doc Rivers had warned his elderly stars that this lockout-truncated season would reward the toughest teams. Neither your age nor injuries nor fatigue could serve as an excuse, he insisted, because everyone was going to feel miserable this year.
During their 15-17 start, the Celtics were physically unable to meet Rivers' standards. At last, 17 days before the playoffs, they've recast themselves as one of those hard-edged contenders.
"We win games we probably shouldn't win,'' Rivers said.
When March ended, the Celtics had yet to produce a signature win; since April Fool's Day they've clobbered Miami twice, they've humbled the 76ers once to claim hold of the Atlantic, and now they've beaten these Hawks, who are themselves trying to overcome the early-season loss of All-Star center Al Horford.
"If the playoffs were starting now, we'd be playing them,'' Hawks veteran Jerry Stackhouse said before the game. "We're trying to establish that we can win up here.''
He recalled watching the Hawks' impressive opening-round series in 2008 that went seven games and said, "They never won up here, so there's probably a little doubt in our core guys' heads of whether we can actually get it done. So hopefully there's going to be a little letdown (for Boston) after the Heat win last night.''
The fatigue of Tuesday was absorbed by the Wednesday triple-double from Rajon Rondo, who celebrated his 19th straight game of 10 or more assists by generating 20 to go with 10 points and 10 rebounds. It isn't often that a point guard can lose possession six times and yet produce an excellent assist-turnover ratio, or likewise go 3 for 16 from the field and yet be applauded by his coach.
"Tonight he willed that game,'' Rivers said. "The fact that he's trying to score is most impressive. Before he was just a facilitator.''
Rondo played 47 minutes and asked to stay in the game when Rivers tried to rest him. Rivers heard the same kind of reply midway through the fourth quarter from 35-year-old Kevin Garnett on his way to 22 points and 12 rebounds.
"Do you want to come out?'' Rivers asked as Garnett stood along the lane before the Hawks shot free throws. He signaled back for Rivers to give him another two minutes, but Garnett never left the game until he fouled out with 2:43 remaining in OT.
Backup center Greg Stiemsma fouled out two minutes later, and Ray Allen was already sidelined by a swollen ankle. When power forward Brandon Bass (a double-double of 21 and 10) went down holding his left knee with 62 seconds left in OT, Rivers shook his head with the exasperation of a coach who looked as if he'd exhausted all of his hopes for this adverse season.
Then Bass stood up, tested his knee and finished the game without a limp. He was joined by Mickael Pietrus, who had suffered a concussion last month in Philadelphia and made a surprising return even more amazing with eight points and six rebounds in 29 minutes -- after Rivers had predicted he would play no more than 10.
"You know,'' said Rivers, "when you coach, you actually change your mind sometimes during games. It's allowed."
The Celtics were horrified by the officiating, and they were almost beaten by Josh Smith. In December, he went 0 for 8 in a dreadful Hawks loss at TD Garden. This time he almost atoned with a hot start that amounted to 20 points, 11 rebounds and five assists. Smith is a big reason why the Hawks have been able to survive the absence of Horford, who may yet return for the playoffs.
"If Al's there,'' asked Stackhouse, "does Josh take on that role of being our most consistent guy? It's basically addition by subtraction. Now we got a guy whose confidence should be high knowing that we rely on him to win games, and when Al comes back, hopefully that's going to make us that much tougher.''
But Horford wasn't walking through that door on this particular night. In his absence, Smith committed six turnovers, half coming in the fourth quarter and overtime.
As Rivers put it before the game, this season has been impossible to read. Is Oklahoma City really the team to beat in the West, or is San Antonio the favorite? Are the Heat suddenly dysfunctional, or are they simply coasting? Will Derrick Rose be at full strength for Chicago? What would the dramatic return of Horford mean to a Hawks team that has benefited from the improvement of Smith along with explosive point guard Jeff Teague (21 points) and the second-half resurgence of Joe Johnson?
And what does a win like this one say of the Celtics, who have looked too old, too small and too thin to extend the championship hopes of their Big Three?
"It just says we have great character, a tough-minded group,'' Rivers said. "You could see they wanted to win that game so bad.''
It isn't yet time to provide the answers that will come only during the postseason. The best Boston can do is to keep raising provocative questions. Are they good enough? On this night they were.