Two nights after an emphatic 101-79 wipeout of the Atlanta Hawks gave them a 3-1 series lead, the Boston Celtics ceded a bit of ground, dropping an 87-86 heartbreaker in front of a rapturous Dogwood City crowd.
There was, perhaps, some comedown in order after Game Four’s unsustainably scorching shooting performance, a 51-percent affair that was actually suppressed by some garbage time bench-emptying during the final quarter. The Celtics’ field goal percentage stood at 60 when they entered the final 12 with a 90-63 lead, and fell to 51 as Keyon Dooling, Marquis Daniels, E’Twaun Moore, Sasha Pavlovic and Ryan Hollins shot two-for-14 down the stretch.
Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett keyed the charge through the first three quarters of that game, each connecting on better than 70 percent of their shots. Pierce led all scorers with 24, despite a tweaked knee that limited him to only 17 minutes of action. Following the tweak, which came off a third-quarter tumble that aggravated a pre-existing injury, Pierce retired to his off-court laboratory to put the Wells-inspired time traveling apparatus he’s been tinkering with through a few paces.
Rondo knocked down a pair of threes on his way to 20 points and 16 assists. Garnett scored 13, including a twisting and-one in the lane late in the first quarter that capped off an 11-4 Celtic run. As the ball splashed through the net, he wheeled around, his face a hideous, snarling Death’s mask cast from the vilely viscid blood of the damned, a living paean to Man’s most awful and feral inner self, and appeared to say to no one in particular, “I’m so excited…I’m so excited.”
Tuesday’s story was quite different. The Celtics’ 44-percent shooting was back in line with their season mark of 46. Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen were efficient enough, combining for 31 points off 12-of-22 from the floor. Pierce, on the other hand, had gone from being merely bothered by his bum knee to fully hobbled by it. He fatigued quickly after a hot first-quarter start, hitting only three of his 11 shots from the second quarter onward after going four-of-six in the first. He walked with a hiccup in his stride, favoring his good leg as he limped up and down the court. His shot was flat and often short. One possession after pulling the Celtics to within one on a soul-stirring three-pointer with less than a minute to play, Pierce missed badly on the potential go-ahead, a 20-footer that pffished against the bottom of the net before bouncing out of bounds.
To underline just how damaged a state he is presently in, the Captain has attempted only one free throw over the last pair of games after shooting 27 in the previous two.
Though Pierce’s struggles were certainly glaring, the Celtics truly lived and died with the play of Rajon Rondo. His game was as up-and-down as they come. While he struggled with his shot throughout the night, knocking down only six of his 17 field goal attempts, he seemed to make them when they were to matter the most. He sent the game into halftime at a 40-40 tie on a buzzer-beating three from 27 feet out. Over the final minute-plus of the third quarter, he brought the Celtics from down 10 to within two in a sequence that saw him (1) swoop in from the arc to rebound and put back a missed Ray Allen three; (2) pick off the subsequent in-bounding pass and knock down a 20-footer, and (3) miss a three-pointer, then slash into the lane to collect a pass off Ryan Hollins’ offensive rebound and bank in a swooping righty lay-in.
The game will surely be remembered for what transpired over its final 10 seconds. Following Pierce’s air ball, the Hawks advanced into the front court, running eight critical seconds off the clock before Ray Allen found the wherewithal to foul Josh Smith. As the Celtics had a foul to give, the Hawks set up to inbound from the sideline.
Atlanta’s players gathered in a cluster in the paint. The Celtic defenders grouped around them, with the exception of Rondo, who stood several feet removed from the pack with his back to the inbounding Smith. Rondo’s role was that of the rover; we imagine that he would have been responsible for following the ball to wherever it was sent to ensure that its recipient would be put on the line with a foul.
Smith collected the ball from the official and the Hawks broke, or attempted to. Their defensive counterparts glued to their bodies, the Hawks struggled to break free from each other. Smith searched desperately for an open man. With four seconds ticked off the silent count, a possibility presented itself as Joe Johnson split from the pack and darted to the corner.
As Rondo watched the action unfold before him, he kept a backwards eye on Smith, sporadically twitching his head to the side to track his movements. Perhaps he saw what the television cameras did; as soon Johnson broke for the corner, Smith locked in with his eyes, telegraphing the pass to anyone who was paying close enough attention.
Rondo shadowed Johnson perfectly, staying a few feet above and a step to the side to suggest an open passing lane to Smith. When the pass came, Rondo was positioned not just to poke the ball away, but to fully wrap it into his body.
The Celtics trailed by one. They had no timeouts. Rondo launched forward. After only two short steps, he was stonewalled by Smith, who shut off the sideline and angled his body outward to the center of the court, forcing Rondo to change direction. He cut in and moved forward. Smith reversed and barred his path again, this time angling back toward the sideline to prevent his man from gaining the middle. Smith defended the play expertly. Playing a step ahead of Rondo and off his right shoulder, he sidled up the court, face to the sideline to ensure that Rondo wouldn’t catch even a glimpse of the lane.
Rondo continued forward, searching for an opening. At the arc, Kevin Garnett set a hard screen on Smith, springing Rondo into the corner. He was immediately swallowed up by Al Horford. Garnett stood above the top of the key, separated from Rondo by Smith. The three other Celtics on the floor stood on the weak side, too far from the action to help. With the clock near its expiration, Rondo briefly lost his dribble, then sent a desperation pass toward Garnett. Smith batted it away as the buzzer sounded. The series shifted back to Boston; the momentum, to Atlanta.
Though the Celtics maintain the series lead, it’s hard not to feel that the Hawks have gained an upper hand. With Pierce running the floor on one leg, Avery Bradley dealing with a banged-up shoulder, Ray Allen playing with bone spurs in his ankles, Mickael Pietrus battling a bum hamstring and Greg Stiemsma barely able to make it on to the floor due to a foot injury, able bodies are in short supply. The Hawks, on the other hand, have received an injection of vigor and spirit thanks to the return of Al Horford, who has been marvelous in his first two games back since a torn pectoral muscle knocked him out of action in January.
The Atlanta team that was so thoroughly chumped in Game Four is likely not the one that will show up for Game Six. Aside from youth, athleticism and size, the Hawks have two things going for them: their backs are to the wall, and they smell blood in the water. The Celtics will need an answer to the fervency they can expect to face. As has happened so often this season, they may find it where they least expected to.
Ryan Hollins signed with the Celtics on March 23, three days after being waived by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Now in his sixth season in the league, Hollins has played for five different teams, averaging 4.2 points and 2.3 rebounds over 13 minutes per game. Along the way, he’s earned two rather dubious distinctions:
1) Though he is listed at seven feet tall, he has a marked inability to rebound the basketball. In fact, according to Basketball-Reference, he is one of only four players in NBA history listed at seven feet or above who have played in 100 games or more and turned in a total rebound percentage of 10.0 or less. He is joined in this by Andrea Bargnani, Brad Sellers and Nikoloz Tskitishvili.
2) He has garnered a reputation, at least amongst his peers, as an especially dirty player, ranking 11th in a Sports Illustrated player’s poll on the league’s dirtiest.
Hollins played in 15 games for the C’s. He averaged nearly three points and two rebounds in just under 11 minutes of action per game. In mid-April, as Doc began to rest his starters in preparation for the playoffs, Hollins saw his run extend to nearly 20 minutes per game. Along the way, he demonstrated the type of play that earned him dubious distinction number two.
When one thinks of a poor-rebounding big, the word “soft” might be among the first that pops into their head. This isn’t necessarily the case with Ryan Hollins. He is incredibly handsy and physical, and plays the game with great zeal. On defense, he stays in close contact with his man, constantly grabbing, pushing and tugging. On offense, he throws his body around with reckless abandon, jumping in front of drivers to take charges, and using his shoulders, hips and rear end to pinball defenders as they chase his perimeter teammates through their off-the-ball actions.
Of course, these tactics are very sneaky and quite often illegal. When you add those two descriptors together and factor in long limbs and loads of energy, “dirty” is what comes through the back end of the equation.
Ryan Hollins brought the dirty to the Atlanta Hawks in Game Five. He played 19 minutes and scored five points. He grabbed four rebounds. He blocked a shot. As it goes with Hollins, the stats were but a fraction of the story.
Hollins replaced Greg Stiemsma with 1:52 left in the first quarter. On the ensuing Celtic possession, he drifted down to the mid-post and stood still for a moment, whipping his head back and forth in search of someone to hit. He spotted Ray Allen pulling Joe Johnson behind him as he cut along the baseline, and drifted down to the low block to set a screen. The screen he set was a right-shoulder check into Johnson’s chest followed by a thrust of his backside into Johnson’s hip as he passed by.
Ray was freed to collect a pass on the wing, but was immediately swallowed up by Josh Smith. The possession eventually ended with a lay-in for the Celtics that put them up 17-13.
Ryan sprinted to the other end of the floor to pick up Erick Dampier at the elbow. Hollins kept his hands on Dampier for nearly the entire possession, breaking contact only to pick up the ball man off a screen. Ryan linked arms with his man, and held him at the elbow, the hip, and the bicep. The possession ended with Dampier looking fairly irritated after knocking Mickael Pietrus to the floor with a brick-wall screen.
These are the actions that Hollins would go on to build the bulk of his minutes around: patrolling the paint in search of a screen to set on offense, and defending his man like they’re attached at the wrist. He contributed several fine plays throughout the game, including:
0:07, First Quarter. The Hawks hold the ball with 19 seconds left in the quarter and 13 on the shot clock. Kirk Hinrich dribbles near the half-court line, guarded closely by Keyon Dooling. Erick Dampier sprints up above the top of the key to set a screen, bringing Hollins with him. Dooling starts to literally run circles around the slow-footed Dampier to avoid the pick. As he does so, Hollins crouches low with his arms spread before him, barring Hinrich from a left-handed drive.
Hinrich drives to his right, getting past Dooling who, though not necessarily screened by Dampier, was at least distracted by his presence. Hollins shows impressive lateral quickness for a man of his size, sliding down a diagonal line from above the arc to cut Hinrich off at the elbow.
Kirk sends a pass to Josh Smith on the low block. Defended by Garnett, Smith holds the ball for a moment, then uses a drop-step to slip along the baseline for a bunny at the rim. Monitoring the play from the mid-post, Hollins drops down and elevates to block the shot off the backboard. If you freeze it just so, he appears to have levitated into the air to wipe some schmutz off the glass.
10:56, Second Quarter. Ray Allen collects the rebound off a missed baseline jumper from Al Horford and pushes it up the court. Followed closely by Horford, Hollins is the first one down to the other end. Allen loads up a pass and lets it fly when Ryan does something quite interesting: he plants at the free throw line, uprights, and lets Horford run directly into him. As the whistle is blown, Hollins extends his arm toward the pass and gets a hand on it before it bounces out of bounds. Horford is called for a shove.
Hollins pumps his fist and high-fives Garnett.
9:49. After leading Horford into a foul a minute prior, Hollins baits Josh Smith into one. Once again, Hollins is the first man down the floor in transition. With Smith tailing, Ryan plants at the free throw line, bends his knees and thrusts his arms back, sealing Josh off from the paint. Though no shot has gone up, he’s essentially boxing Smith out. Josh responds by shoving Ryan toward the baseline, then complaining to the official when the whistle is blown.
9:15. Al Horford sets up a screen for Kirk Hinrich above the arc at the wing. As he seals off Ray Allen, Ryan steps forward to pick up Hinrich. He bars the sideline path to the corner, leaving a small space between himself and Horford for Kirk to attempt to sneak through. As Kirk drives at it, Ryan leans into his path and punches the ball out of his hands and into the front row. Only four seconds remain on the shot clock. Off the inbounding pass, Jeff Teague rushes a baseline runner that caroms off the side of the backboard.
3:14. Avery Bradley commits a foul on Joe Johnson, biting on a fake of an up-fake – Johnson bends at the knees as though he’s going to pump, but never actually does it – and jumping into him as he goes up for a shot. Hollins comes over and either chastises him or tells him to keep up the solid D. Either way, Avery looks like someone put more than a couple bees in his bonnet.
Third Quarter, 2:42. Hollins checks in for his first action of the second half with 5:28 left in the third. He proceeds to commit three fouls in the span of about two minutes. With the first, he makes Jeff Teague earn his two points at the free throw line rather than the rim, clipping him in the head while contesting a driving lay-in.
With the second, he’s finally called for some of his off-the-ball shenanigans, getting whistled for clutching on to Al Horford’s jersey while the action develops several feet away.
The third comes at the end of a battle with Horford below the rim. With 3:05 left in the quarter, Horford collects the ball just inside the extended elbow and engages one-on-one with Hollins. He dribbles forward to his right, then spins down the post, looking for a shot from the baseline. Hollins stands above him with his arms raised, keeping him from a clean line at the basket. With nothing doing, Horford reverse-spins into the lane, moving about the semicircle to get a shot up over Ryan’s left shoulder. The ball rolls around the rim and falls out.
Hollins and Horford leap for the rebound. Horford has the better position and collects it deep underneath the hoop. Hollins stands his ground, fully upright with his arms raised above Horford’s head. Facing away from the basket, Al leaps into Ryan’s body and flings the ball backward over his shoulder, drawing the foul. He makes one of his two shots. The Hawks lead, 66-54.
At the other end of the court, Hollins sets up at the free throw line. The Celtics have been outscored eight-to-nothing over the past two-and-a-half minutes. Rajon Rondo curls around the arc to collect a handoff from Ray Allen. As he does so, he loses Jeff Teague behind a crowd of Hawks and Celtics alike. This forces Horford to abandon Hollins and pick up Rondo until Teague can recover. Hollins sees an opening and takes it.
The lane below him is wide open. Ryan springs toward the hoop, triggering a lob from Rondo. The two points off the throw-down trigger a 10-0 Celtic run that will last out the rest of the quarter and close the Hawks’ lead to two.
Fourth Quarter, 10:04. Four minutes later, they do it again. With 10:15 left in the quarter and the shot clock winding down, Jeff Teague takes a hard drive at the hoop, attempting a floater over the top of a leaping Ryan Hollins. The ball bounces off the back iron and is rebounded by Rajon Rondo. Rajon sprints the ball forward, pulling up his drive above the elbow with Josh Smith and Willie Green barring his way. Joe Johnson stands on the opposite side of the paint, available to contest if needed on either Ray Allen or Mickael Pietrus, who are stationed along the perimeter behind him. The lane between the three Hawks is wide open.
Ryan Hollins sprints into view. As he passes into Rondo’s line of sight, he turns to face him, hands up, palms out. Rondo pulls back and sends another lob. Hollins’ dunk ties the game at 68. Josh Smith can’t help but exult at the knee-quaking majesty of the Rondo-to-Hollins connection.
Ryan Hollins won’t score 20 Thursday night and he won’t board worth a lick. He won’t need to. Using great mobility, energy to burn and a knack for being in the right place at the right time, Hollins will influence the game in ways that won’t be reflected in the stat sheet. He’ll set a bunch of barely-legal screens, provide a reliable defensive presence, goad a few fouls out of the Hawks’ key players, and throw down the odd oop when the conditions are right. If another low-scoring, slim-margin contest is on the books, those are just the sort of contributions that could swing the game in the Celtics’ favor.