The Atlanta Hawks had a golden opportunity to seize control of their Eastern Conference quarterfinals set against a Boston team without its star point guard Rajon Rondo.
Instead, the Celtics persevered behind Paul Pierce and the Hawks will limp into Boston with a banged-up Josh Smith for Game 3 of the series.
Actually Boston was without Rondo and veteran sharpshooter Ray Allen on Tuesday when Pierce put the Celtics on his back, scoring 36 points and grabbing 14 rebounds to lead Boston to an 87-80 victory over the Hawks in Game 2 of their set at Philips Arena.
Rondo, of course, missed the contest after being suspended for one game by the NBA for making contact with referee Marc Davis with 41 seconds left in the Celtics' 83-74 Game 1 loss Sunday, while Allen missed his 11th straight game with an injured right ankle.
Kevin Garnett recorded 15 points and 12 rebounds, while Rondo's replacement, Avery Bradley, added 14 points to help the Celtics even the best-of-seven series.
"I told our guys, it was just a team win," said Boston head coach Doc Rivers. "You can pick out so many different little things that every single guy that played on the floor did for us and that's how you grind out wins and that's who we are."
Joe Johnson led the way for Atlanta with 22 points and Jeff Teague chipped in 18. Smith added 16 points and 12 boards, but departed the game with a left knee sprain with 4:20 left in the fourth quarter.
"We will not hang our heads at this point," said Atlanta head coach Larry Drew. "There's just too much basketball to be played. It gives us an opportunity to go up (to Boston) and show what we're all about and show what we've been about all season."
Smith was diagnosed with s strained tendon on Wednesday and has been listed as day-to-day. The athletic forward has been Atlanta's best player this season, averaging 18.8 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.9 assists a game this season, while posting 19.0 points, 15.0 rebounds and 4.5 assists over the first two postseason contests against Boston.
Allen's injured right ankle, meanwhile, will likely require surgery after the season but the veteran remains day-to-day going forward, according to the Celtics.
"I think he has a better shot [of Allen playing in Game 3]," Rivers said. "I'd rather take 10 minutes of him on the floor than not."
The Hawks have had their own injury problems on top of Smith. Two-time All- Star big man Al Horford has missed most of the season recovering from surgery to repair a torn left pectoral muscle and his replacement in the starting lineup, Zaza Pachulia, has missed the last nine games dating back to the regular season with a sprained left foot. Third-stringer Jason Collins, who had just two points and three rebounds in Game 2, continues to start.
With Rondo back in the lineup on Friday, Drew understands things get tougher for Atlanta.
"We know what we are going to be facing with him back," the Hawks' coach said. "He's the head of the snake. He makes so many things happen."
Rivers on the other hand didn't want to dwell on Rondo's selfish act and is looking toward the future.
"The way to do it [come back ] the best is to come out in Game 3 and play a terrific game," Rivers said. "You want to make sure he doesn't try to do too much, just do what he does."
In the playoffs, this rivalry dates all the way back to the 1956-57 season when the Hawks called St. Louis home. Since moving to the Peach State in 1968, however, the Hawks have never beaten the Celtics in the postseason, losing six straight series (1972, '73, '83, '86, '88 and 2008.)
Boston also won two of three over the Hawks in the regular season, including the lone contest at TD Garden.
Game 4 is slated for Sunday, also in Boston.