THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
ATLANTA — Give Josh Smith a perfect 10 in his personal dunking contest.
And give the Atlanta Hawks some credit: The team that was supposed to get swept by big, bad Boston in the opening round of the playoffs pulled off a win that was nine years in the making.
The high-flying Smith scored 27 points and the Hawks earned their first playoff victory since 1999, beating the Celtics 102-93 Saturday night to cut Boston’s lead in the series to 2-1.
"My heart was racing, I was so excited," said Smith, who certainly did his part by dunking five times on the Celtics. "I wanted to give the city of Atlanta something to cheer about."
That he did.
After getting blown out twice in Boston, Smith and the Hawks seemed to take out all their frustrations on a 66-win Boston team that finished 29 games ahead of eighth-seeded Atlanta during the regular season. When the buzzer sounded, streamers fell from the ceiling of Philips Arena as if the home team had just won a championship.
The Hawks, who went 37-45 during the regular season, are still huge underdogs. But for one night at least, Smith — a former NBA dunk champion — had the rim rockin’ and the sellout crowd of 19,725 on its feet.
"It gets everybody going," Smith said of his above-the-hoop theatrics. "It gets the crowd going. It gets my teammates going. That’s what we needed: easy points."
Even Boston coach Doc Rivers, who played for the Hawks during their most successful era in the 1980s, was impressed.
"It was back like the old days, when Dominique (Wilkins) played," Rivers said. "I was there, too, sitting on the bench watching him."
With everyone thinking sweep, the Hawks made sure the series will at least get back to Boston for a fifth game. They’ll try to even it up in Game 4 Monday night at Philips Arena.
"We’re not satisfied," said Joe Johnson, who added 23 points for Atlanta. "We have another one to get. We know it’s going to be very electric Monday, and we’re looking forward to it."
The Celtics know they gave Atlanta a glimmer of hope. They want to snuff it out as quickly as possible.
"We went away from what we’ve been doing all year," Rajon Rondo said. "I feel this is a must-win game for us Monday."
The Hawks took control in the third quarter, outscoring the Celtics 28-18 and limiting Boston to 5-of-21 shooting. Atlanta went on to its first playoff win since May 16, 1999, a Game 5 clincher over the Detroit Pistons.
Those Hawks were swept by New York in the next round, then launched an ill-advised rebuilding plan that was supposed to create a younger, faster roster. Instead, the team totally fell out of playoff contention with moves such as trading for malcontent Isaiah Rider.
The nadir came four years ago, when the Hawks went 13-69 after deciding to totally rebuild again.
Smith, who was drafted right out of high school, saved his best dunk for last. After Boston threw it away, Johnson took off down the right side of the court and passed off to Smith breaking down the other wing. He took off a good 10 feet from the basket and slammed it through over Ray Allen.
With the crowd still buzzing over that one, Smith pulled up behind the arc and hit a three-pointer that gave the Hawks a 94-79 lead with just under seven minutes left. He backpedaled all the way down the court, then slapped hands with the playoff-starved Atlanta fans on the baseline.
"From the start," Boston’s Kendrick Perkins said, "you could just tell they wanted it more."
Mike Bibby — who riled up the Boston faithful with his comments about "fair-weather" fans — bounced back from two dismal games by doling out eight assists. Showing much better ball movement and a willingness to run with the Celtics, the Hawks improved from 10 assists in Game 2 to 28 on Saturday.
Rookie Al Horford was a force on the inside. He had 17 points, 14 rebounds, six assists and showed he wasn’t afraid of the mighty Celtics, jawing with Paul Pierce in the final minute.
Kevin Garnett led Boston with 32 points, but the NBA’s youngest playoff team had him kneeling over, looking totally exhausted, by the end of the game.
The Celtics had manhandled Atlanta all year, beating the Hawks three times during the regular season — none of the games was closer than 10 points — then routing them twice in Boston by an average margin of 21 points to start this series.
Horford, who knows a thing or two about winning from two straight national championships at Florida, tried to fire up his teammates by showing them a video of Muhammad Ali’s stunning win over George Foreman in 1974’s "Rumble in the Jungle."
"That was something special," Horford said. "I felt like we could do something special, too."
He even showed a bit of contempt for the guys in green after hitting a clinching jumper with 22 seconds remaining. He got right in Pierce’s face, prompting the Boston star to walk toward the Atlanta bench, jawing and flashing hand gestures before he was yanked back.
Horford danced away and kept right on talking, unconcerned about the ramifications later in the series.
"This is the playoffs," the rookie said. "He better be fired up. He doesn’t need me to fire him up."
Pierce, who was bodyslammed to the court in Game 2, played 36 minutes with a stiff back and wasn’t much of a factor. He managed 17 points on 5-of-13 shooting. Allen was 5-of-14 and held to 13 points, leaving Garnett to carry the Big Three. He also had 10 rebounds.
"They’re just not going to lie down for us," Pierce said.
Notes: The Hawks played their first home playoff game since May 20, 1999, a 77-70 loss to the Knicks in Game 2 of the sweep. … This was the first playoff win for either of Philips Arena’s main tenants. The NHL Thrashers were swept in their only post-season series, and the Hawks had not made it since the building opened in the fall of 1999. … The start of the second half was delayed by a malfunctioning shot clock. The clocks above both baskets were shut off, and the time was kept at the scoring table. Two air horn canisters were brought in to use if the 24 seconds expired, but the problem was finally fixed in the fourth.