Earlier in the season, the Atlanta Hawks beat the Boston Celtics 97-86, exposing a few of Boston’s flaws.
The Hawks took it to the Celtics that night, using their athleticism, physicality and youthful energy to win the rebounding battle 47-29 and really own the Celtics in the paint. For a Celtics team used to intimidating and out-working its opponents, the game against Atlanta proved to be a wake-up call, a reminder that teams won’t roll over just because the “Big, Bad Celtics” come rolling into town. It showed the Celtics they still have to show up and do the things that have gotten them a reputation as a tough team; namely, work, work work, and execute, execute, execute.
The Hawks know what they did well when the two teams met in November; they know why they won that game, and how they’ll have to play if they want to beat the Celtics again tonight.
“I think we have to do what’s worked for us,” Joe Johnson told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We have to use our athletic ability. That’s got to be our strength, getting stops and getting out and getting easy fast-break points.”
Using their athleticism certainly worked in the first meeting between the two teams. That night, the Celtics weren’t just outplayed; they were outclassed. All night long, they allowed Al Horford and Joe Johnson to have their way with them, to pound them into submission. The Hawks treated that game like it was the NBA Finals, the Celtics as if it were just another game on the schedule. And it showed.
After Atlanta lost to Boston in a tightly-contested seven-game series during Boston’s run to the 2008 NBA championship, the Hawks have slowly but surely improved to a team on the cusp of entering the conversation of true NBA contenders. Despite recent struggles, Atlanta has proven to be a formidable foe, a team that can knock off even the NBA’s best on any given night.
The only thing missing from Atlanta’s application to the NBA’s elite is consistency. The very best teams in the NBA not only win most games they play; they win even on nights when not everything goes their way, and even on their worst performances find themselves in a winnable game.
That’s what the Celtics have been able to do this year, and it’s something Atlanta really respects about the C’s.
“That team, they’re just solid every night,” said Al Horford. “I feel like Cleveland and Orlando can have their slippage like we’ve had, but for some reason, Boston, they have a good coach and veteran players and they’re just so consistent every night that you know what you’re going to get out of all of them.”
Boston and Atlanta have been linked since the Celtics were taken to seven games by the upstart Hawks during the C’s 2008 championship run. The Celtics gained some admiration for the Hawks, who never backed down a single inch, even when clearly outmatched as the East’s eighth seed.
But, in the end, it was Boston’s consistency and skill that won out, rather than Atlanta’s youth, exuberance and athleticism.
The Hawks have closed the gap between the two teams since that series but, still, a gap remains.
The Celtics are still where the Hawks one day want to be.
Three things to look for in tonight’s game:
- Rebound battle – The Hawks crushed the Celts on the boards in November, and it was the biggest reason they won the game. They got far too many offensive rebounds and second-chance points. If the Hawks again dominate the glass, the Celtics could be in for another long night.
- Bench play- With Jamal Crawford putting in 17.1 points off the bench, the Hawks can really change a game when their subs come in. In the first meeting between the two teams, Crawford managed to score 18 points as Zaza Pachulia and Joe Smith also contributed good minutes. The C’s bench is far more balanced… when it is healthy. Now, though, with Marquis Daniels and Tony Allen both likely to miss tonight’s game, look for Eddie House and Glen Davis to carry the wounded C’s bench. The bench battle could go a long way to deciding which team wins this game.
- How many minutes will Ray Allen and Paul Pierce have to play? – Doc Rivers tends to play Ray and Paul a few too many minutes, especially in big games, and especially when the bench is depleted. Yikes. Tonight will be a big game, and the bench — specifically, the small forward and shooting guards on the bench — will be depleted due to illness and injury. Pierce and Allen could be very, very tired by the end of this one.