"You have to pick your poison," Hawks swingman Tracy McGrady said. "When he's doing things like that, you don't know what to do."
Rondo returned from a one-game suspension for bumping an official and recorded his seventh career playoff triple-double on Friday night, leading the Celtics to a 90-84 overtime victory over the Hawks that gave Boston a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.
The Celtics point guard had 17 points, 14 rebounds and 12 assists one game after sitting out for bumping referee Marc Davis in the closing minutes of the series opener. Rondo did not have a basket in the first half of Game 3, and Celtics coach Doc Rivers said he noticed Rondo struggling to run the offensive plays.
"Then, finally, I told him: 'Just be a scorer. Just attack.'" Rivers said. "And I thought that freed him up."
Rondo made the first two baskets of overtime, including a post-up hook shot over Jeff Teague that gave Boston the lead for good.
"I felt good about all the shots I took," Rondo said. "My teammates told me to stay aggressive. Nights like tonight when I take a lot of shots, I finally found a way to get my team a win."
Game 4 is Sunday night.
Ray Allen returned for Boston after missing almost a month and scored 13 points in 38 minutes. Kevin Garnett had 20 points and 13 rebounds, and Pierce had 21 points one game after scoring 36 points with 14 rebounds to help the Celtics swipe home-court advantage with a Game 2 victory in Atlanta.
Joe Johnson scored 29 points and Teague had 23 for the Hawks. McGrady had 12 points — his highest total since he had 40 for Houston in 2008 — but 10 were in the first half, before he landed awkwardly on his right ankle and went to the locker room. He did not have a field goal in the second half.
"I know I'll be sore tomorrow. I can feel it already," he said. "It affected my shot. I had no lift. It affected my cutting. I'll just go and get treatment tomorrow."
The Celtics went on an 11-1 run to open a double-digit lead with 7 minutes to play in regulation, but Atlanta rallied and tied it 80-80 on Johnson's 3-pointer with 1:23 left. Both teams failed to score on their next two possessions, leaving the Celtics with the ball out of bounds with 3.9 seconds left.
Rondo inbounded to Pierce, who was defended by Johnson and had to take a long, fallaway jumper that bounced off the rim at the buzzer.
"There were a few possessions it seemed no one could score," Johnson said. "We definitely felt like we let one get away. We felt like this was our chance to get one."
The Celtics got Rondo back from his one-game suspension and Allen back on the court for the first time since April 10. He played just five games over the final month of the regular season because of bone spurs in his right ankle and missed the first two games of the playoffs as well.
The Hawks kept losing players. With top centres Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia already out, forward Josh Smith was scratched with a sprained tendon in his left knee.
"I thought we were depleted but we were still in a position where we could have won the game," Hawks coach Larry Drew said. "It says a lot about your team when they can step up in the playoffs short-handed and still put themselves in position to win the game. We certainly had our opportunity. We just fell short."
Notes: Hawks C Erick Dampier scored six points in 23 minutes. He played 83 minutes over 15 games and scored just two points in the entire regular season. ... Pierce's next playoff game will tie him with Dennis Johnson and Bob Cousy for 10th on the Celtics' all-time list with 109. Next up is current Celtics GM Danny Ainge, with 112. ... John Havlicek played in 172. ... Johnson scored eight points in the first quarter and McGrady had 10 points and four rebounds in the second. ... Celtics G Avery Bradley went to the locker room in the third with a sore left shoulder. The team initially said he would return, then said he wouldn't. ... Bruins president Cam Neely sat courtside with Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck, getting a big cheer when he was shown on the scoreboard. ... Allen, the NBA's career 3-point leader, was 0-for-4 from 3-point range. He was 1-for-3 from the line and 6-for-12 from the field.