For the first time in these playoffs the Celtics mustered the same enthusiasm and energy they showed during their season-opening 29-3 start, when they were playing as if they had a lot to prove. The Celtics as a team had been quiet during their plane ride home after their frustrating Game 6 loss in Atlanta on Friday night, and Kevin Garnett viewed their melancholy as a positive sign that everyone was plugged into the team mission. Garnett and Rajon Rondo were among those who said they couldn't sleep the night before Game 7. "I've been up for damn near 24 hours thinking about Game 6 and the things we need to do," said Garnett. "I knew defensively when we was going through our [Saturday] walk-through how we was going to be for the game. I don't think we missed any assignments. A lot of the things that we wanted to do as far as strategy, we did that."
Entering the fourth quarter the Celtics were practically doubling the Hawks on the scoreboard (79-43), in shooting percentage (47.7-24.2) and in assists (14-5). Crucially, Boston outscored the younger Hawks 12-2 in transition. "Take it to the post and beat them down the floor to the basket," said coach Doc Rivers of the Celtics' strategy. "I just kept thinking we were not running [through the first six games], and if they're crashing the glass and we're getting rebounds then we should be running. And so they did that tonight."
It goes without saying that an early exit by the Celtics would have ruined interest for the remainder of the Eastern Conference playoffs. Conspiracy theorists will note that this game was officiated much differently than the previous six, with few touch fouls on the perimeter or bail-out calls late in the shot-clock Sunday. It felt like a Game 7 from the intensity of the crowd to the more physical nature of play, and that style was crucial to Boston, whose foul-prone defense had provided the Hawks with almost a dozen more free-throw attempts per the previous six games. On Sunday the Celtics won the free-throw column (with a 19-16 advantage in attempts) for the only time in the series. "They were going to let you play, that's what they should do," Rivers said of the officials. "You've got to allow the good players on the floor to make the plays. And that's what I told the guys before the game: I said I tried to remember my pregame speeches in Game 7s when I was a player, and I told them I couldn't remember one. I said Pat Riley is the best speaker in the world and I couldn't remember it. And they [his Celtics players] were laughing, and so I said, 'Clearly you're not going to remember crap I'm saying today. The reason is, Game 7 is the ultimate player game. They're going to let you play, it's going to be physical and you guys should have a freakin' ball out there.' So I did anticipate that this would be a more physical game, which obviously would be in our interests."
The Celtics pulled away early thanks in no small part to a first quarter of eight points (3 of 4), six rebounds and two blocks from center Kendrick Perkins. In their moments of weakness throughout the series the Celtics had been channeling their offense to the perimeter, but Perkins gave them a foundation inside from which they steadily built a 20-10 lead in the opening 10 minutes. "Kendrick was phenomenal," Rivers said. "I thought he set the tone defensively as much as anyone."
A key indicator for Atlanta was the 3-for-12 performance of Hawks rookie center Al Horford, who had entered Game 7 with efficient averages of 13.3 points on 51.7 percent shooting with 10.2 rebounds. The Celtics' improved defense snuffed out the Hawks' interior offense, giving them nothing to develop inside during their halfcourt sets.
Early in the third quarter Rondo attacked the basket and Marvin Williams stopped him with a hard foul that knocked Rondo flat on his tailbone. Williams looked like he was trying to hold up Rondo with both arms around his upper body, but the accidental outcome was a violent collision with the floor. "He threw him down on his back," Rivers told official Dan Crawford as Rondo lay on the ground. "I got it," replied Crawford, whose crew assessed Williams with a Flagrant 2 foul that forced him to be ejected. Rondo got up and received an urgent pep talk in his ear about toughness from K.G. "I was just telling him in so many words, you did a great job tonight, keep your head and make your free throws," said Garnett.
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