If anyone thinks that the Atlanta Hawks don’t have a hated playoff nemesis, think again. The Boston Celtics have been the fly in the Hawks playoff ointment many times, and the rivalry has only gotten more heated over the past few years. Since moving to Atlanta in 1968, the Hawks have been to the post-season 27 times, and six times Boston has been the team to send them home. That’s more than any other team the Hawks have faced in the playoffs. The series opens on Sunday, April 29 in Atlanta at 7:00 pm.
The 1988 game seven – where Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins put on a shooting clinic, and has since simply been billed as “Bird vs ‘Nique” – was probably the highlight of playoff match-ups between these two teams, with the 2008 first round series in which the Hawks pushed the eventual NBA champion Celtics to seven games being the renewal of the rivalry.
It’s no secret that these two franchises, and in particular, the players on the current rosters, aren’t too fond of each other. So this year’s first round 4 vs 5 seed match-up should be physical, and will be closely contested. However, the Hawks are going to be at a decided disadvantage due to injuries, and will have to have some guys step up in a big way if they hope to move past Boston.
The biggest problem for Atlanta this year will be down low. It’s already been decided that center Al Horford – who has missed most of the season with a shoulder/chest injury – will not be available for the first round. Normally, that would have laid the job of getting inside and defending the paint to Zaza Pachulia, who usually plays well against the Celtics and loves getting physical with Boston forward Kevin Garnett. But Pachulia has been out with a foot injury for the last two weeks, and it’s now reported that he too will most likely miss the first round. That means the Hawks will be sending out Jason Collins and Ivan Johnson to get down low, and the Celtics are licking their chops at that thought.
Without a big presence inside, it’s going to make life difficult on the Hawks perimeter shooters. Playing Joe Johnson isolation sets will not bear much fruit if the Celtics don’t feel they have a huge threat under the basket to defend, and guards Jeff Teague and Kirk Hinrich will have to be more aggressive in getting the ball distributed to Josh Smith and reserve Marvin Williams.
Smith could be the big key to the Hawks winning. When he drives to the hoop, he almost always draws a double-team, which can lead to open shooters outside the key, or getting the Celtics into foul trouble. If Smith is content attempting jump shots, and not bringing the ball inside it will play right into the hands of the Celtics defense.
Overall, the match-up favors Boston in this series, but if the Hawks can disrupt Celtics shooters Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo by being physical and aggressive, and keep Josh Smith out of foul trouble, they could still make a run. Boston won the regular season series 2-1, with the only Atlanta victory coming on April 20, when Boston rested nearly all of their starters for the entire game. Both Boston victories were decided by three points or less.
Keys for the Celtics:
1. Keep the Hawks out of the paint, and make them settle for outside jump shots
2. Frustrate Josh Smith, and get him to foul early.
3. Dominate the boards, especially on defense.
Keys for the Hawks:
1. Think small and quick, keep some of the aging, slower Celtics off balance.
2. Be aggressive and crash the boards, try to get Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce into foul trouble
3. Get Josh Smith driving into the lane, and not standing pat on jump shots
My prediction: Celtics take the series in 6 games. (Sorry, Hawks fans)