After the embarrassing game four blowout in Boston, the feeling was that the Boston Celtics would easily close out the Atlanta Hawks in game five of their first round playoff series. But the Hawks had other plans, and got back up off the mat and punched the swagger right out of the Celtics legs. This might sound crazy coming from someone who predicted the Hawks would lose to the Celtics in six games, but after the game five victory by Atlanta, I’m not counting the Hawks out of winning this thing.
In my preview of this series, I pointed out some decided advantages that the Celtics held over the Hawks. One of those, being low post presence, has now swung back in favor of Atlanta. In game four, All-Star center/forward Al Horford returned to play for the first time since early January, and made some limited contributions. But in game five, with the Hawks facing elimination, Horford was a difference maker, and he might be exactly what the Hawks need to steal this series from the favored Celtics.
Horford’s presence alone helps Atlanta in more ways than one. With Horford in the lineup, Joe Johnson is no longer forced to expend excess energy guarding Paul Pierce. Johnson can again focus on his offensive game, and leave the heavy bumping and grinding with Pierce to the bigger Horford. It also means that Pierce, who is strong on defense, can’t go help to double team Johnson when he’s in isolation without leaving either Horford or Josh Smith open in the paint. Oh and by the way, all of this will be going on when Paul Pierce is obviously somewhat hobbled from the knee injury he suffered in game three. Advantage Hawks.
The X-factor for the next two games (if there are two) will be Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo. Since returning from his one-game suspension, Rondo has been playing like a man on a mission, and the Hawks have had absolutely no answer for him at the 1-guard spot. Rondo is much quicker than both Kirk Hinrich and Jeff Teague, and has been able to take his pick of either driving into the lane, or making superb passes to open teammates. When Rondo is running the Boston offense, Atlanta has to rotate much quicker on defense, or there will be a lot of open jump shots coming for the Celtics.
The question is this. Is it possible for the Hawks to do something they have never done since 1988…win a playoff game in Boston. If Atlanta can withstand the first quarter flurry in game six, and keep the Celtics from shooting 68% in the first half (as they did in game three), then they just might be able to pull one out. And if the series returns to Atlanta for a game seven, I’m putting my money on the Hawks at home.