Playoffs? This fantastic Celtics-Hawks clash requires a check of calendar

BOSTON -- You had to double-check the calendar after this one. It's still November, right? In fact, the midpoint of the month has not yet arrived, so this still qualifies as early November, correct?

Because the scene at the end of this barn burner -- and more importantly, a half-second before the final buzzer -- was like something you'd see in late May or early June.

Paul Pierce screaming in delight. Kevin Garnett punching at the air. The Atlanta Hawks walking off looking forlorn, but certainly not dejected. Not after the way they stuck with the defending champs all night, not with the way they had this one in their grasp until Pierce rose over 6-foot-10 Al Horford and buried a 20-footer from the right side with a half-second left to give the Boston Celtics a 103-102 victory Wednesday night over the previously unbeaten Atlanta Hawks.

"It was the NBA at its highest level tonight, and we just happened to come up on the short end," Hawks coach Mike Woodson said. "We've grown a lot since last season, thanks to the Celtics. They put us in that frame of mind that you've got to come out every night and dig in and play, man. I told our guys before the game it was going to be a dogfight, and it was one of those games where somebody had to grind it out."

Prior to Pierce's game winner, Marvin Williams put the Hawks ahead on a 3-pointer from the corner with 7.4 seconds left (he was 4-for-4 on 3s, and it should be noted that he was defended most of the night by the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Garnett). After a timeout, the Celtics got the ball into the hands of their go-to guy, and Pierce put the finishing touch on a superb 34-point effort.

After a 6-0 start, this night showed that the Hawks, who were blown out in this building four times during their seven-game playoff series against Boston last spring, are no fluke. This was their second game of a back-to-back set on the road, they were without Josh Smith, and did not have Zaza Pachulia for the second half after he injured his shoulder. What's more, this was the sixth quality opponent the Hawks had faced in their first seven games, they entered with the league's fourth-best defense, and they handled themselves with considerable and admirable aplomb -- a character trait they simply did not possess last postseason when they were an entirely different team on the road than they were at home.

"I'm happy with my locker room, and we've just got to build off this game," Woodson said. "I thought we grew up in the playoffs, to push that team to seven games; it left a great taste in these guys' mouths.

"I don't look at this as a moral victory. A loss is a loss, and I'm sure the way we lost it doesn't sit well with these guys. But from a coaching standpoint, I'm very optimistic and happy with the way we're going."

There's no doubt this game left the Celtics with something to think about, especially after they had to battle back from an early 16-point deficit to snap the crowd out of a malaise that seemed to linger throughout the building over the course of the first three quarters. A year ago at this time, the Celtics were killing teams almost as soundly as the Lakers (the NBA's only remaining unbeaten team) have been doing the past two weeks. But this season the Celtics have looked a little too uncrisp, a bit too fat and happy early in games (think Detroit Pistons, circa 2004-07) before flipping their collective switch and playing their best basketball.

"We want tonight to be a flagship to get our season going," Allen was saying beforehand. "We don't want to be a trampoline for anyone -- we did that for them last year."

But in the end, both things happened -- the Celtics had their house rocking like it did last June, and the Hawks showed they've already sprung to the level of the East's upper echelon.

Boston got great games out of Pierce (34 points) and Garnett (25 points, 12 rebounds, 4 assists) and better-than-mediocre games out of Allen (17 points, but only two in the second half) and Rajon Rondo (5 points, 10 assists). But the Celtics' bench was outscored 30-13 by Atlanta's (Hawks newcomers Ronald "Flip" Murray and Maurice Evans scored 14 and 13, respectively) and the Celtics had only five 3-pointers to Atlanta's 13.

Statistically, it was pretty much even. In fact, it was pretty much even all the way through, any way you looked at it.

Could anybody realistically say two weeks ago, much less six months ago, that Boston and Atlanta would be almost even by Nov. 12?

Didn't think so.

But the Hawks, at least for a night, were pretty much every bit as good as the defending champs. And so even though Woodson dismissed the notion of a moral victory, it pretty much amounted to that for Horford, who left the arena holding his head a lot higher than he did when last season ended so miserably and decisively in Atlanta's 34-point Game 7 loss.

"The swagger's there. We've got that swag," Horford said. "We want to let people know we're serious, and that's what we've been doing. We lost, that's the bottom line, but we get to play them a couple more times, and we'll be looking forward to those."

And, of course, we'll see where the Hawks are by the time they make their next trip to Beantown, which won't come until April 3.
By then, it'll actually feel like spring outside. And there's no doubt that either of these teams will have trouble remembering the night in November when it sure did feel like winter had already passed.

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Chris, click here.