"They have reached a point where we are trying to get," Hawks guard Joe Johnson said before the teams played Friday night. "That was just a great series, nothing more."
But the latest meeting between the teams felt like 2008 because of the intense, physical play. The result was familiar, too, with the Hawks winning 88-83 at Philips Arena.
The Hawks won all three home games against Boston in the 2008 playoffs. They denied the Celtics a season sweep by rallying in the second half with a determined defensive effort.
The Hawks won their fourth consecutive game for the first time since they won their fifth in a row Jan. 12. Two days after beating Orlando, the fourth-place team in the East, the Hawks turned back the defending conference champions.
"They are the team until somebody proves them wrong," Hawks forward Josh Smith said before the game. "They have been the team these past couple of years. ... [Boston] is a veteran ball club who has been together, who have three Hall of Fame players on their team, and they have already figured out how to get it done."
The Celtics played at San Antonio on Thursday and arrived in Atlanta at 4 a.m. Friday. But they were buoyed by a crowd overflowing with their supporters and used a strong close to the first half and opening of the third to lead by as many as 12.
The Hawks were down 68-58 late in the third quarter, but a 13-1 run gave them a 71-69 lead, their first since they led 41-39. The Hawks took a 77-73 lead when Jamal Crawford scored on a tough drive, Al Horford made a jump shot and Crawford passed to Horford for a layup.
Hawks center Zaza Pachulia was fouled after he snatched a rebound from Kevin Garnett and made both free throws for a 79-75 lead. Johnson followed with a 3-pointer that pushed the Hawks' lead to 82-75 with 3:17 to play.
Boston's Ray Allen made a 3-pointer over Horford and Johnson to cut the lead to 84-81, but Boston missed its next two field goals and two free throws. Pachulia and Paul Pierce traded free throws, the Celtics missed two shots and then Horford tipped in Johnson's miss for the final margin.
The Celtics are known for trying to physically intimidate their opponents. They were in form against the Hawks, who engaged them in a game that featured hard fouls, pushing and shoving and a general atmosphere of animosity.
Johnson gave Pierce a hard foul on a drive to the basket in the first quarter. Pierce tumbled to the ground, then jumped up and shoved Johnson to earn a technical foul.
Later Pachulia, who famously tangled with Garnett in the 2008 playoffs, bumped Boston's Jermaine O'Neal. O'Neal took exception and went after Pachulia; both players were charged with technical fouls.
The chippy play eventually settled down. In the fourth quarter Pierce fouled Johnson on a dunk attempt that sent both players hard to the floor, but Pierce checked on Johnson to make sure he was fine.
Crawford broke out of a recent funk by scoring 12 consecutive points in the second quarter. He made two 3-pointers, darted into the lane for two baskets and made two free throws.
But the game was still tied at 41-41 after Crawford's burst. The Celtics made eight of nine shots to close the half while the Hawks missed seven of eight to trail 52-44 at halftime.