BOSTON -- It was an inspired loss and an unimpressive win. It was a game to be survived and then forgotten. It was a night of injuries, fatigue and just enough basketball scraped out of the bottom of the jar.
The Celtics' 90-84 overtime win on Friday gave them a 2-1 series lead over the Hawks, who for many of their stubborn 53 minutes were as small as a junior college team. Atlanta was missing almost 21 feet of talent among the pre-existing injuries to All-Star center Al Horford (torn pectoral), backup Zaza Pachulia (bone chip in his left foot) and newly injured power forward Josh Smith, the Hawks' best player this season, who suffered a sprained left knee Tuesday in Game 2.
This shortened but tightly wound season is turning into a painful game of musical chairs in reverse. In this game, you don't want to be left on the chair, but so many are now sitting because of injury, including Derrick Rose of the Bulls and his center, Joakim Noah, who left the arena on crutches Friday with a sprained left ankle. There are Dwight Howard of the Magic, and Amar'e Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert of the Knicks. Then there are the Hawks, who are like the knight in "Spamalot" who refers to his dismembered limbs as "just a flesh wound."
"We have three key bigs who are unable to play right now," said Atlanta's stoic Joe Johnson. "So that is a minor setback."
"You can look at the course of the season -- it was a rat race from Game 1 all the way to this point," said Ray Allen, who made his 2012 playoff debut with 13 points in 37 minutes after dealing with an ankle injury that will threaten him the rest of the way. "Nobody really got a chance to rest or heal. We say at this time of year that guys are hurt or injured, but this time it's serious injuries. Guys are out for the playoffs or the season."
The unavailability of Smith created an opportunity for 32-year-old Tracy McGrady, a 6-foot-8 wing who had been frustrated for much of the season while averaging 16.1 minutes in 52 games. In his previous life, McGrady had been named to the All-NBA team for seven years and led the league in scoring twice. There had been a time when people wondered if he was better than Kobe Bryant.
A pre-game visitor asked McGrady if he had ever played power forward. "The other night," he said.
In that case, McGrady was told, he was following the odd path taken by Magic Johnson. Five years after he retired, 6-9 Magic came back in 1995-96 as a power forward for 32 games. "Wasn't he a point guard?" McGrady asked suspiciously.
Of course, but when he came back it was as a power forward.
"I didn't know that," said McGrady, who a short time later was enjoying one of his best games this season.
McGrady turned into Zelig, the Woody Allen character who takes on the characteristics of whomever happens to be nearby. He posted up like a power forward, he dribbled and created like a point guard and he even spun and dunk like a younger man. He found himself matched up at different times against almost every relevant Celtic -- Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Avery Bradley and Rajon Rondo. But the tiniest of them turned out to be the most dangerous. When McGrady went up for a jumper deep into the second quarter, he landed on Rondo's foot and collapsed with a twisted right ankle. Of all the players to channel, he had taken after Horford, Smith and Pachulia.
McGrady returned in the third quarter to play on one healthy leg. Suddenly Johnson was surrounded by a rotation that resembled his first year in Atlanta, when the Hawks went 26-56 before steadily improving to become a second-round playoff team for the last three years. They were challenging a home team that had access to the entirety of its roster for the first time in weeks, and yet the Celtics weren't able to build a lead of more than 11 points because they weren't used to being healthy. It was that simple: Prosperity was a concept for which they were unprepared.
Rondo had an out-of-sorts triple-double of 17 points (7-of-22 shooting), 14 rebounds and 12 assists, which were offset by a half-dozen turnovers. Having been suspended for Game 2, he was passive in his return, and more concerned with executing the offense than with executing the opponent. Such was the opinion of coach Doc Rivers, who finally asked Rondo to stop creating for others and focus on scoring -- anything so long as he attacked. At one point he was isolated in the post against Jeff Teague, which was like midget wrestling. In the fourth, Rondo had spun counter-clockwise toward a layup when the defense rotation of McGrady forced him to kick out to Pierce in the corner, where he was waiting directly in front of Pachulia and Horford. From their seats on the bench they leaned around either side of Pierce to watch his three-pointer swish through for a 70-64 Celtics lead with 8:49 left.
Boston stretched it out to 76-65 as Rivers gambled on leaving Garnett in the game. It backfired. The Celtics, exhausted, stopped scoring. Johnson, with everything to gain, hit a couple of farfetched jumpers to force OT.
The Celtics then pulled away, but afterward Rivers regretted the 49 minutes of Rondo, the 47 of Pierce (3-of-12 with four turnovers, though he finished with 21 points after going 14-for-14 at the line) and especially the 42 of Garnett (20 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks). He worried about Avery Bradley, who had been limited to 25 minutes because his injured left shoulder had not popped back into place, and he admitted that he had no idea what Allen might contribute in Game 4 on Sunday or even whether he would be able to play.
"We are right there," insisted McGrady, who finished with 12 points and nine rebounds in 41 minutes. "It's no time to panic."
But McGrady may have been making too much of this lost opportunity. In this strange season, health is ephemeral and the future is an uncertain mess. The Celtics may show up Sunday playing as sharp as the '85 Chicago Bears. Or something else unfortunate may become of them to further make the Miami Heat believe that this really is their year.