Spud Webb, the shortest player in the National Basketball Association, said the Atlanta Hawks had to keep Boston off balance to be successful. And they finally were today, avoiding elimination in their NBA Eastern Conference semifinal playoff.
"We needed to get the monkey off our back," Webb said after the Hawks beat the Celtics for the first time in 10 tries this season, 106-94.
The victory cut Boston's lead to 3-1 in the best-of-seven series, but no team in NBA history has overcome a 3-0 deficit to advance in the playoffs.
Webb and Dominique Wilkins, the NBA's leading scorer, sparked the victory.
Wilkins scored 37 points, including 10 straight during one stretch of the third quarter when Atlanta took control for good. Webb provided 21 points and 12 assists.
"Webb looked like player of the year," said Boston Coach K.C. Jones. "We also saw the same old Dominique today. But we just had too many turnovers and sloppy ball-handling. Bad offense and poor shooting . . . "
The series returns on Tuesday night to Boston Garden, where the Celtics have run off 35 victories in a row and posted a 44-1 mark for the season, including playoffs. Today's was Boston's first loss in the playoffs after six victories, over Chicago and Atlanta.
"There were a lot of big plays today but the biggest was the last play of the game, then looking up at the clock and seeing that the season wasn't over," Wilkins said.
The Celtics' downfall came from poor shooting, 34 percent from the field. Their star, Larry Bird, was far off form, making only one of 10 field goal attempts in the first half and five of 19 overall, although he ended with 20 points.
The Celtics led, 51-50, at halftime and were still ahead, 62-60, with just under seven minutes remaining in the third quarter. Then Wilkins made his 10-point run, including two three-point plays, to give Atlanta a 70-62 lead with 5:08 left in the quarter.
The Hawks led, 79-74, after three quarters and the Celtics never got closer than three points the rest of the way, that coming with 4:31 remaining, 90-87, when Bird made two free throws.
Glenn Rivers answered with a three-point play and Bird came back with a basket before the Hawks put the game on ice by scoring the next nine points.
The 5-foot-7 Webb also made a key contribution when the Hawks took control in the third quarter, penetrating the Boston defense to set up baskets for teammates.
The Hawks led in rebounding, 60-48, with Tree Rollins clearing 16. Kevin McHale led the Celtics with 26 points and 12 rebounds.
"Nobody in our locker room wanted the series to end today," Hawks Coach Mike Fratello said. "The team knew what they had to do to win. They gave themselves a chance.
"From a team aspect, we did a good job all the way around. Our big shots seemed to fall and that was the difference. Individually, you can't say enough about the job Spud Webb did off the bench. Dominique worked hard and forward Cliff Levingston was outstanding. He really played big."
"I tried to stay a little more under control today," Webb said. "I hit a few jumpers and that seemed to settle me down. They had to respect the jumper and that opened up the middle. I felt like we kept them off balance. Now we've got to look at Tuesday. We can't enjoy this too much."
"We missed a lot of shots we normally make," Boston guard Danny Ainge said. "We also did a poor job of stopping their transition game."
Said Wilkins: "It seems like the last couple of games we were walking the ball up the court and that's not our style. "We have to push the ball to be successful. We did today and we were."