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Hawks diminish Celtics playoff lead with home win

POSTED: May 7, 2008 5:01 a.m.
/The Associated Press

Atlanta Hawks forward Josh Smith (5) goes up for a shot while Boston Celtics guard Rajon Rondo (9) and forward Paul Pierce (34) watch Saturday during the first quarter of Game 3 of the first-round playoff series in Atlanta.

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ATLANTA — Led by high-flying Josh Smith, the Atlanta Hawks finally showed they can beat the Boston Celtics.

Good timing.

Smith scored 27 points — and give him a perfect 10 in his own personal dunking contest — to lead the Hawks to a 102-93 victory Saturday night that breathed life into their long-shot playoff hopes, cutting Boston’s lead in the opening-round series to 2-1.

Atlanta earned its first playoff win since May 16, 1999, a Game 5 clincher over the Detroit Pistons. The Hawks were swept by New York in the next round, then spent nine long years trying to get back to the postseason.

After getting blown out twice in Boston, Smith and the Hawks seemed to take out all their frustrations on a 66-win Celtics team that finished 29 games ahead of eighth-seeded Atlanta during the regular season. When the buzzer sounded, streamers fell from the ceiling of Philips Arena as if the home team had just won a championship.

The Hawks, who went 37-45 during the regular season, are still huge underdogs. But for one night at least, Smith had the rim rockin’ and the sellout crowd of 19,725 on its feet.

Smith, one of the NBA’s most athletic players, showed it off with five dunks — none better than the last one. After a Boston turnover, Joe Johnson took off down the right side of the court and passed off to Smith breaking down the other wing. He took off a good 10 feet from the basket and slammed it through over Ray Allen.

With the crowd still buzzing over that one, Smith pulled up behind the arc and hit a 3-pointer that gave the Hawks a 94-79 lead with just under 7 minutes left. He backpedaled all the way down the court, then slapped hands with the playoff-starved Atlanta fans on the baseline.

Johnson added 23 points and Mike Bibby — who riled up the Boston faithful with his comments about "fair-weather" fans — bounced back from two dismal games by doling out eight assists. Showing much better ball movement and a willingness to run with the Celtics, the Hawks improved from 10 assists in Game 2 to 28 on Saturday.

Smith, Johnson and rookie Al Horford all had six assists.

Kevin Garnett led Boston with 32 points, but the NBA’s youngest playoff team had him kneeling over, looking totally exhausted, by the end of the game.

The Celtics had manhandled Atlanta all year, beating the Hawks three times during the regular season — none of the games was closer than 10 points — then routing them twice in Boston by an average margin of 21 points to start this series.

With everyone thinking sweep, the Hawks made sure the series will at least get back to Boston for a fifth game. They’ll try to even it up in Game 4 Monday night at Philips Arena.

Horford, a rookie who knows a thing or two about winning from his two straight national championships at Florida, tried to fire up his teammates by showing them a video of Muhammad Ali’s stunning win over George Foreman in 1974’s "Rumble in the Jungle."

This upset was hardly of that magnitude, but it did give the Hawks a glimmer of hope in a series that already looked to be over.

Horford even showed a bit of contempt for the big, bad Celtics after hitting a clinching jumper with 22 seconds remaining. He got right in Paul Pierce’s face, prompting the Boston star to walk toward the Atlanta bench, jawing and flashing hand gestures before he was yanked back.

Horford danced away and kept right on talking.



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