Tuesday May 8, 2012

ATLANTA -- Boston's Big Three still has some life in those old bones.

Thirty-somethings Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen led the Celtics to their most recent NBA championship in 2008, and this could be their last hurrah together in Beantown.

If so, they're clearly looking to go out with a bang.

"They have pride," Atlanta Hawks center Al Horford said Monday. "That goes a long way."

The Big Three (plus, let's not forget, Rajon Rondo) have led the Celtics to a 3-1 lead over the Hawks. Game 5 is tonight in Atlanta, with Boston looking to wrap up the series after a 22-point blowout that wasn't really that close.

The Hawks know what they're up against, facing an experienced team with a trio of aging stars who clearly have something to prove.

"They've got guys who've been in wars, who've been in the trenches, who've been in these type of situations more than we have," Atlanta coach Larry Drew said. "When you look at their history over the last few years with Paul and KJ and Ray, and now with the way Rondo has been playing, they've always been a dangerous team to me."

Plenty of skeptics figured Boston was all washed up early in the season, and it's easy to see why. The Celtics approached the midway point at 15-17, closer to missing the playoffs than making any noise in the postseason.

But they were one of the best teams in the league the rest of the way, winning 24 of their last 34 games and carrying that momentum into the playoffs.


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After three tight games with Atlanta, they took control of the series with a 101-79 rout Sunday night.

The 34-year-old Pierce scored 24 points in less than 19 minutes -- not bad, considering he hurt his left knee in the morning shootaround and the Celtics weren't even sure he'd be able to play. He's averaging a series-leading 23.3 points a game, including a gutsy 36-point effort in Game 2, when Boston grabbed a win on the road even with Rondo serving a suspension for bumping a referee.

The 35-year-old Garnett and 36-year-old Allen are doing their part, too.

KG is averaging 17 points in the series and leads the Celtics in rebounding (10.5 a game). Allen, who had not played since April 10 because of bone spurs in his right ankle, returned for the past two games in Boston to provide valuable minutes off the bench. He's averaging 12.5 points.

"I feel surprisingly great," Allen said.

Of course, the Big Three is actually the Big Four. Rondo got off to a rough start in the series, bumping an official while complaining about a call in the final minute of Atlanta's Game 1 win.

After sitting out Game 2, Rondo returned to put up a triple-double (17 points, 14 rebounds, 12 assists) in the next game, allowing the Celtics to pull out an overtime victory after the Hawks rallied from 11 points down in the fourth quarter. He followed with 20 points and 16 assists Sunday night, which gave his older teammates a chance to get some much-needed rest in the second half.

"That's Rondo being Rondo," Pierce said. "He's one of the best point guards in the NBA. He has the confidence and controls the game."

The Hawks suddenly look like a team in disarray, even though they have their own version of the Big Three back together for the first time since January.

Center Al Horford, who missed nearly the entire regular season recovering from pectoral surgery, made a surprise return in Game 4 after initially saying he would definitely have to sit out the opening round of the playoffs.

While Horford turned in a surprisingly solid performance off the bench, scoring 12 points and grabbing five rebounds, the rest of the team seemed completely out of sync -- especially Joe Johnson.

The Hawks go-to offensive player took only eight shots and finished with nine points. He was virtually non-existent as the Celtics raced to a 23-point lead at halftime and essentially clinched the game early in the third quarter, leading by as many as 37.

Johnson was clearly frustrated by the lack of scoring opportunities.

"I don't think they're doing anything different defensively on me," he said. "It's just basically getting an opportunity to touch the ball. That's it."

While praising Horford's performance, Johnson said the center's return seemed to hurt the chemistry the Hawks had developed over the three months without him.

"Whether the rotations are different or the guys don't know when they're going to play, I don't know what it is," Johnson said. "You've got a whole team back together that hasn't played together since January. It is kind of tough to change that coming into Game 4 of the playoffs. That's a big adjustment."

Drew shrugged off the comments, saying it was up to Johnson "to be more aggressive working to get his shots" while the guys around him need to recognize when he's gone more than one or two possessions without getting a shot.

"There were a number of situations where we could have made one extra pass, and that extra pass would have been to him," Drew said. "We need to be more mindful when he's out there to make sure he's getting touches."

With the potential for two more home games, the Hawks aren't giving up on the series. They already had a surprisingly solid season without Horford and believe coping with that adversity prepared them to overcome a huge hurdle in the playoffs.

"This is not the end of the world," Drew said. "This is an opportunity to show what we're made of."

The Celtics are ready to wrap things up and give their Big Three a few extra days of rest before the second round.

"You don't want to give a team any confidence," Pierce said. "You've got to go down to Atlanta with the right mindset. You don't want to bring it back to Boston because anything could happen. The NBA is a weird league. One game could give a team confidence. "