BOSTON - The Celtics and Hawks renewed a "rivalry" that began in the 2008 playoffs Friday night at the Garden.
Two seasons ago, when nobody gave them a chance, the eighth-seeded Hawks took the eventual world champion Celtics to the brink of elimination before falling in seven games.
The Hawks have used that series as motivation ever since. And they were out to show the world how much better they have gotten since then.
Atlanta (7-2) stunned the sellout crowd of 18,624 with a 97-86 victory over the Celtics (8-2).
"The Celtics taught us how to play playoff basketball," Atlanta coach Mike Woodson said. "They really set us up for last season in terms of the 47 wins and securing one of the top four spots. I always thought if you can beat the best team in basketball, there's not a team in the league that you can't beat. I thought we proved that last year.
"Our expectations are higher this year and we're trying to get to a better place than we were last year."
Both teams reloaded in the offseason, with the Celtics signing four-time All-Star Rasheed Wallace, Marquis Daniels, and Shelden Williams, and re-signing Glen Davis, while the Hawks traded for dangerous scorer Jamal Crawford and signed former lottery pick Joe Smith as well as veteran center Jason Collins. They also re-signed starters Marvin Williams, Mike Bibby and Zaza Pachulia.
While the Celtics were out to prove that they are the best team in the East, Woodson said before the game that the Hawks would use the battle as a measuring stick to see how they compare to "the deepest team in the league and by far probably the best team."
Apparently they are pretty good.
The Hawks immediately let the Celtics know they were in a game, jumping out to a 14-6 lead over the opening six minutes, but the Celtics came roaring back, cut the Hawks' lead to 24-22 by the end of the quarter, and then took a 25-24 lead when Rasheed Wallace began the second quarter with a 3-pointer.
Back-and-forth they would go, with the two teams exchanging bucket after bucket. There were seven lead-changes in the second quarter as neither team could take full command of the game, and Boston took a 42-41 lead into the locker room at halftime.
Like they have done so many other times this season, the Celtics looked poised to pull away at the beginning of the third quarter when Kendrick Perkins capped off a 6-0 Celtics run with a jumper that gave them a 54-48 lead with 7:37 left in the third, but Atlanta guard Mike Bibby (13 points), who was booed nearly every time he touched the ball (he called Celtics' fans "fair-weather fans in the 2008 playoffs) would score the game's next five points to pull the Hawks within one.
That was the start of a 19-8 Atlanta surge which Al Horford (12 points, 13 rebounds) capped off with a two-handed dunk that put the Hawks ahead, 67-62, with 2:48 remaining in the quarter.
The Celtics would close the gap to 72-70 by the end of the quarter, but lost captain Paul Pierce (24 points) for a while when he bruised his left knee with 3:15 remaining.
When he returned to the game with 10:29 left in the fourth, the Celtics were trailing by four. It only got worse from there. Atlanta center Zaza Pachulia gave the Hawks an 82-72 cushion with two made free throws with 8:33 remaining.
The Celtics would slash Atlanta's lead to 83-76 after a Pierce steal and Rajon Rondo (4 points, 9 assists) fast-break layup, but the Hawks were not going to be denied.
Jamal Crawford, who hurt the Celtics all game, finishing with 18 points off of the bench, extended Atlanta's surge to start the fourth quarter to 15-6 with a jumper and a free throw to make it 87-76 with 5:56 remaining.
The Celtics never recovered.
"He gives us scoring and that's something we desperately need," Woodson said of Crawford. "We need it coming off our bench. He's done a great job in that regard."
Joe Johnson led the Hawks with 24 points and 7 rebounds.
Kevin Garnett had 14 points and 5 rebounds.