for this game

Cassell, Celtics prevent Hawks from clinching

Apr 13, 2008 - 3:17 AM By Phil Foley PA SportsTicker Contributing Writer

ATLANTA (Ticker) -- Sam Cassell would not let the Boston Celtics lose down the stretch, keeping the Atlanta Hawks from clinching a playoff spot.

Cassell poured in 15 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter and Kevin Garnett added 24 to lead the Celtics to a 99-89 victory over the playoff-hopeful Hawks on Saturday.

Paul Pierce collected 14 points and six rebounds and Ray Allen scored 14 to lead red-hot Boston to its ninth win in 10 games.

"Sam came up big for us," Garnett said. "He seemed to get into a zone, and he's one of the few in the league who can score points in bunches like he did tonight."

Joe Johnson scored a team-high 21 points and Josh Smith and Al Horford added 17 each for Atlanta, which nevertheless inched closer to its first playoff appearance in nine years after the Indiana Pacers fell to the lowly Charlotte Bobcats, 107-103, on Saturday.

Any combination of a Hawks' win or a Pacers' loss will put Atlanta in the playoffs for the first time since the 1998-99 campaign.

"Right now, it's so important for us to win," Smith said. "Tonight was a perfect opportunity."

"We have to take care of business on Tuesday (against Orlando)," Horford said. "We'd like to do it at home. We don't want to rely on winning our last game of the season (against Miami)."

The Hawks looked like they were on the cusp of clinching their first ticket back to the postseason on the 50th anniversary of the franchise's lone championship.

Atlanta opened up a six-point fourth-quarter lead after Atlanta's newly acquired point guard Mike Bibby drained two 3-pointers sandwiched around a bucket by Cassell to give Atlanta a 84-78 lead.

With Boston's "Big Three" of Garnett, Pierce and Allen on the bench, and Indiana losing by double digits at the time, it looked like Saturday may have been the night for Atlanta to finally clinch their first playoff spot this side of the millennium.

But Cassell caught fire, igniting a 16-2 run to give the Celtics the victory. The 6-3 reserve guard tallied 10 of the 16 points, starting the run with a bucket at 7:57 to cut the deficit to four and capping it with a 3-pointer with 1:20 remaining to give Boston an insurmountable 94-86 lead.

"I'm trying to (get back into the swing of things)," joked the 38-year-old Cassell, who joined the Celtics on March 4 after he his contract was bought out by the woeful Los Angeles Clippers. "It ain't easy at my age. But I'm getting into a little rhythm."

"Sam's performance tonight was vintage Sam," Boston guard Paul Pierce said. "He's really playing well as of late, and is starting to get into the flow. He's going to be big for us in the postseason."

On April 12, 1958, Hall-of-Famer Bob Pettit tallied 50 points to lead the St. Louis Hawks to a 110-109 win over the Celtics in decisive Game Six of the NBA Finals. Pettit was honored for his heroics during a halftime ceremony.

In this one, the Hawks responded with a ferocious third-quarter comeback, erasing an 11-point halftime deficit with a 21-8 run to get back in the game.

Smith tallied nine and Rookie of the Year candidate Horford chipped in six as Atlanta came back against Boston's first unit. Johnson capped the run with a seven-foot running jumper with 5:48 remaining to give Atlanta a 65-63 lead.

"Tonight, we were able to fight back in the third," Horford said. "We had the lead in the game, and Sam just came in and took over the game."

Atlanta fared much worse against Cassell and Boston's reserves in the fourth quarter in a contest that was a preview of what will likely be a first-round matchup between the teams in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

"It's funny, I told our coaches that I think we have a better chance tonight to win with our second unit," Rivers said. "You could see in the third quarter that our starters' energy was low, so we went with the bench and Sam and Tony (Allen) came up big for us."

Already assured of the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, this one was more of a tune up for the Celtics rather than a playoff preview as Boston almost exclusively went with their second unit for the final 12 minutes.

The Hawks still could not muster a victory. Led by 6-of-9 shooting from Cassell, Boston's second unit outscored Atlanta's starters, 25-15, to sweep the season set.

"They hit shots that were big shots, and we didn't come back and hit anything," Atlanta swingman Josh Childress said. "That was the difference in the game. It's going to be an interesting series if we get matched up (in the playoffs)."

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