ATLANTA -- Hawks coach Larry Drew and Al Horford agreed the big man would play somewhere between 15 and 25 minutes in Game 5 against the Celtics -- just his second game back since a torn pectoral muscle suffered on Jan. 11.
That plan was abandoned quickly, and because it was, the Hawks are still breathing.
Horford dragged a middling Hawks team out of its funk and past, at least for one night, the Celtics, 87-86. He had a team-high 19 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks in 41 minutes, and, oh yeah, made the game-saving play in the final seconds.
"You see how much he helps us," said Josh Smith, who was bailed out by Horford after an ill-advised inbounds pass with 10 seconds left. "We've been maintaining without him, but you can see how big he is -- the energy level, the intensity."
The Hawks still trail 3-2 and have to make another trip to Boston for Game 6 on Thursday, but they rebounded after an embarrassing effort in Game 4 and can make the claim that the pressure now rests with the Celtics.
After a game of punches counterpunches, the final sequence came down to the Celtics' Rajon Rondo and Horford facing each other with the Hawks clinging to a one-point lead. Rondo tried to drive along the left sideline, but Horford swallowed him up and forced a pass that was deflected by Smith as the buzzer sounded.
"Rajon has actually been shooting the ball pretty well, hitting jumpers," Horford said. "I didn't want to lose the series with him hitting a jumper over me. You're fighting for your life out there, so my whole thing was to force him to pass the ball. I crowded him as much as I could and Josh made the deflection."
Smith collapsed on the scorer's table afterwards, realizing his inbounds pass that Rondo stole with 10 seconds left came close to ending the Hawks' season.
"I feel bad how it ended, because Rondo willed us back into the game," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers.
Indeed, it was Rondo who sparked the Celtics late in the third quarter when the game appeared to be getting away with the Hawks in front by 12. In the final two minutes of the quarter, the Celtics went on a 10-0 run thanks to an assist, steal, rebound and six points from the point guard, who notched his 29th straight 10-plus assist game with 12, to go along with 13 points, five rebounds and five steals. Rondo is the Celtics' plastic surgeon, making aging players appear younger than they are.
In the end, though, he endured another dejected stroll back to the locker room in front of a roaring Philips Arena crowd, similar to his Game 1 Walk of Shame after he was booted for bumping referee Marc Davis.
"I cornered myself along the sideline," Rondo said of the final play. "Give Al credit. I just didn't come up with the shot."
Horford deserves plenty of credit. He waffled on his availability for the first-round series several times, then decided to give it a go in Game 4. And while the Hawks were blown out, Horford played 20 effective minutes and regained some confidence that he could make a difference in the series.
He was in the starting lineup for Game 5, but started slowly, missing four of five shots in the first half. In the second half, Horford came through with 17 points, consistently nailing open jumpers along the baseline off pick-and-pop plays with Jeff Teague (16 points, five assists). He energized the home team and the hometown, both of which were in need of a jolt after it appeared this series was headed for a quick ending after Sunday's blowout.
"It is an elimination game," Horford said. "I was tired but I kept pushing through it. I was picking my spots of when I was aggressive and when I was laying back."
With Horford leading the way, the Hawks shot a stellar 61 percent in the second half against the normally sound Celtics defense, a number that will enable them to get the series back to Atlanta should they be able to repeat that feat at TD Garden on Thursday.
"We didn't want to end the season," Smith said. "We came out and played harder. We want to get it back here for Game 7."
They are 48 minutes away.