Hawks 97, Celtics 92

When the Boston Celtics played the Atlanta Hawks on Friday

night, it might have been a precursor to an NBA playoff series, but

it certainly didn’t qualify as a ”preview.”

Joe Johnson scored 30 points as Atlanta edged the short-handed

Celtics 97-92 to take a step toward securing a home-court edge

against Boston in the first round of the playoffs.

But the Celtics hardly looked like themselves.

Starters Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett and key

reserves Ray Allen and Mickael Pietrus did not play. On top of

that, there wasn’t much defense from either team in the first half

as Atlanta took a 58-49 lead.

Johnson scored 23 points, Boston guard Avery Bradley scored 17

of his career-high 28 and both teams combined to make 23 of 38

shots over the first two quarters (60.5 percent).

Rondo, Allen and Pietrus stayed in Boston with injuries, and

Celtics coach Doc Rivers gave Garnett and Pierce rest after playing

11 games in 15 days.

Still, Boston had more energy even with several rarely used

players getting big minutes, and the Celtics pulled within one

point five times in the fourth quarter before Johnson’s three-point

play with 1:56 left gave Atlanta a 90-86 lead.

The Hawks held on, but they were not so happy about it

afterward.

”For us, it definitely sits a little uneasy,” Johnson said.

”I don’t feel like we brought our `A’ game.”

Bradley, who moved into Allen’s starting spot at the shooting

guard position several weeks ago when Allen began battling problems

with a surgically repaired ankle, moved into Rondo’s point guard

position and gave the Hawks fits.

He scored 12 points in the first quarter and surprised the Hawks

in a variety of ways while besting his previous career high of 23

points.

”When . . . you come out and pretty much right before the game

find out that (Garnett and Pierce) are not going to play . . . I

don’t know if it does something to you mentally, but it makes them

that much (more) unpredictable,” said Hawks forward Josh Smith,

who had 19 points and 12 rebounds.

”Bradley played outstanding for them. I didn’t know he had that

much in his game.”

The Hawks lost a home game earlier this season when Miami Heat

stars Dwyane Wade and LeBron James did not play, and there was

danger of a repeat Friday, especially when Keyon Dooling scored on

a layup with 2:33 left to close the deficit to 87-86. Johnson’s

three-point play came moments later.

Hawks coach Larry Drew said he considered leaving Johnson and

Smith on the bench late in the interest of getting them some rest,

but the prospect of moving toward home-court advantage came into

play. They each played 5:22 in the final quarter as the unsung

Celtics made life difficult.

”That was certainly wavering,” Drew said. ”It was a situation

of making a decision of just trying to solidify the home court

position.”

Dooling finished with 17 points, and Marquis Daniels added

12.

The Hawks (38-25) have the fourth-best record in the East, which

as long as they finish with a better record than Boston (37-27)

would give them home court in a 4-5 match-up against the Celtics

even though the Celtics are going to be considered a top four seed

by virtue of having clinched the Atlantic Division title.

If the teams finish with the same record, Boston would be

considered the fourth seed (behind the Pacers) and gain home court

against Atlanta by virtue of being a division champion. Plus, the

Celtics beat the Hawks in two of three regular-season meetings.

The Celtics may be back to full roster strength in time for

their game in Boston on Tuesday against the Heat.

”It has to help our team in the long run,” Rivers said of

resting key players. ”I just think when your team plays like that

it gives (reserves) a lot of confidence, and it gives the guys that

didn’t play a lot of confidence in them, which is huge.”

Notes: Hawks starting C Zaza Pachulia missed his fourth straight

game with a sprained left foot. In his place, Jason Collins had a

season-high eight points and seven rebounds. . . . The Celtics

signed 6-foot-10 C-F Sean Williams, who averaged 15.2 points, 8.9

rebounds and 2.5 blocked shots for the Texas Legends of the

D-League. Williams, who played at Boston College, averaged 3.6

points and 1.6 rebounds for Dallas. He was drafted by the Nets 17th

overall in 2007, and has career NBA averages of 4.3 points, 3.4

rebounds and 1.2 blocks. He had a rebound in 3-plus minutes Friday.

To make room, Boston requested waivers on injured C-F Jermaine

O’Neal.