BOSTON — The Hawks knew what was coming Thursday night at TD Garden because they had seen it before.
“This place will be hot and energized,” Hawks coach Larry Drew said before Game 6 on Thursday. “I think they'll come out and try to get the knockout early. We have to expect that and respond in the right way.”
The Hawks, routed by Boston at TD Garden in Game 4, competed harder with their season on the line in the return trip. That still wasn't enough.
Boston defeated the Hawks 83-80 to win the series 4-2 and advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals to face Philadelphia. The Hawks failed to advance to the second round for the first time in three seasons.
The Hawks rallied with a 14-2 run in the fourth quarter and led 79-78 in the final minute. But they failed to score on three consecutive possessions, and center Al Horford missed one of two free-throw attempts with a chance to tie the game with 2.3 seconds left.
The Hawks posted a 40-26 record during the lockout-shortened regular season. They persevered through a series of injuries that included losing Horford, an All-Star, after just 13 games.
In the end, the Hawks couldn't hold their lead and force Game 7. The Hawks led 79-76 after Horford's driving score with less than three minutes to play.
Boston's Paul Pierce scored to cut the lead to 79-78 with 2:05 to go. The Hawks came up empty on three consecutive possessions while Kevin Garnett made a basket with 30.4 seconds to go, and Ray Allen made a free throw with 9.3 seconds to play to give Boston an 81-79 lead.
The Hawks had one final possession to win or tie.
Joe Johnson lost the ball on a drive, but the ball went out of bounds off of Boston. Horford drove to the basket and was fouled, but missed his first free-throw attempt before making the second.
Pierce made two free throws, and the Hawks couldn't get off a desperation shot at the buzzer. They lost another close game in the series after it looked as if they would crumble.
Boston gained a 41-31 lead in the second quarter. The Hawks trimmed the lead to 47-41 at halftime, trailed 67-63 after a foul-filled third quarter and pulled within 67-65 early in the final period.
Boston responded with a 7-0 run that featured six points by Garnett. The other point was a free throw by Allen after Smith was called for a technical foul for arguing with game official Derrick Stafford.
The Hawks appeared finished after two lackluster possessions produced bad shots. But Horford sparked another Hawks run.
Horford scored eight points during the 14-2 burst. Horford scored on a spinning drive, a jump shot and alley-oop dunk on a pass from Smith to cut Boston's lead to 76-75 with 3:52 to go.
Smith followed with a dunk that gave the Hawks a 77-76 lead, their first since 31-30. The Hawks couldn't finish, though, so their season ended with a strong effort that came up short.
The Celtics overwhelmed the Hawks early here in Game 4. They led by as many as 24 points in the second quarter and by 27 after halftime en route to the 101-79 victory.
Boston, like the Hawks, had key players hurting for Game 6. The Celtics were just as desperate to end the series in Boston as the Hawks were to take it back to Atlanta for a decisive Game 7.
“I see them trying to come out early and establish themselves and get the crowd into it and try to make it into a physical game,” Smith said before the game.
“Shot selection and not turn the ball over,” Drew said before the game. “We were in a hurry last game. We made a lot of early, ill-advised passes. We didn't explore our options. We were looking to one side, and Boston is too good for that.”
This time the Hawks were more patient and sharper at the start. They didn't play too fast on offense, their defense was spirited and they rebounded well.
The Hawks led 23-20 after one quarter after trailing 32-19 at the same point in Game 4. The Hawks kept it up early in the second quarter to build a 28-20 lead.
And then the Hawks unraveled while reverting back with a flurry of turnovers and rushed shots. The Celtics seemingly turned every one of those miscues into points during a 21-3 run that gave them a 41-31 lead and energized their fans.
Smith scored three baskets and Joe Johnson two to pull the Hawks within 47-41 at halftime. They managed to keep the score close despite Boston scoring 13 points off 10 turnovers and making eight free throws to the Hawks' two.