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Pierce leads Celtics past Hawks

Mar 3, 2008 - 2:57 AM BOSTON (Ticker) -- Paul Pierce scored 30 points to lead the Boston Celtics to a 98-88 victory over the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday.

Pierce scored 17 of those points in the third quarter as Boston pulled ahead for good after trailing at the half.

"I just tried to play within the flow of the game, you know let the game come to me," Pierce said. "In the second half, I just wanted to be a little more aggressive than I was. Saw an opportunity, guys were finding me, setting up the screens, and I took advantage of the opportunity."

The Celtics, who own the best record in the NBA at 46-12, also got 20 points and 16 rebounds from Kevin Garnett as they earned their eighth straight home win, and fifth straight overall. He has now played in eight games since returning from an abdominal strain.

"I don't know what you all expect," Garnett said. "I am human and I do have rust. You know I have some above average teammates who make the game easier at times.

"I've been playing through the offense, playing real free and taking the shots when they are there and, at the same time, trying to get back into rhythm. So, you know I am coming, I am coming along, slowly but surely."

The Hawks led 44-41 at the half, but the Celtics opened the third quarter with a 13-2 run to take the lead for good.

"They just made a run. They are a team of runs," Hawks forward Josh Smith said. "They made runs throughout the entire game. We just weren't able to withstand it the whole game, and they were able to do it. We just let them do it at the wrong time."

After rookie Al Horford opened the second half with a putback for Atlanta, Ray Allen knocked down a pair of 3-pointers to give the Celtics a 47-46 lead at the 10:27 mark.

Pierce took charge from there, scoring the next seven points on a layup, dunk and 3-pointer.

"In the third quarter, the difference was Paul Pierce," Boston forward Kendrick Perkins said. "He just took over. I'm used to that now, but when I first got here, I was like, 'Man!' Now, it's just what Paul does."

Atlanta fought back and pulled within 70-67 at the end of the third quarter behind six points from Mike Bibby. The Celtics led 88-83 with just under three minutes remaining, then put the game away as Allen scored on a runner and Pierce followed with four free throws and a layup in the closing moments.

Allen finished with 17 points, Perkins chipped in with 11 and 12 rebounds and Rajon Rondo added eight assists for Boston, which shot 45 percent (37-83) from the floor and held a 48-43 edge in rebounding.

Smith had 22 points and nine rebounds, Horford added 14 and 11 and Bibby finished with 14 and nine assists for Atlanta (24-33), which remained one game behind New Jersey (26-33) for the final spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

But the Hawks haven't played well on the road where they are just 7-22.

"We are struggling on the road," Hawks coach Mike Woodson admitted. "That has been a given this season. We have been in some games on the road just like tonight, the effort was tremendous I thought until the third and fourth quarter. The middle of the third, and on into the fourth quarter we just didn't have a defensive presence and, in this league, that is what wins games."

Joe Johnson was 0-of-6 on 3-pointers for the Hawks, who shot just 39.5 percent from the field and a woeful 3-of-16 from the arc.

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