By sitting most of their regulars against the Hawks Friday, the Boston Celtics essentially told Atlanta — now officially their first-round opponent — “We aren’t worried about the prospect of walking into your house and taking at least one game, suckas.” The sentiment makes at least some amount of sense: While the Celtics have been contending for championships and/or refusing to go down meekly the past four seasons, the Hawks have been stuck in neutral, never accomplishing much that was more lasting than their seven-game series loss to Boston in 2008.
But the Hawks have performed well this season, as Larry Drew has taken a team ravaged by injuries, especially the lengthy one to Al Horford, and kept them almost exactly where they have been recently, in fourth place in the Eastern Confernce. Their margin of victory, normally one of the best playoff indicators, is seventh-best in the entire NBA, even with Horford out since Jan. 11, three weeks into the season. (Boston’s margin of victory, obviously skewed because the Celtics played so poorly during the season’s first half, is 11th-best.)
And Horford might return soon, though it doesn’t sound like returning is the smartest option for his future. The All-Star played three-on-three with some teammates the other day and said he was “frustrated” because “I’m supposed to be fully healed but I’m not all there yet.” He also finds himself telling coach Tyrone Corbin to hit him during drills, because contact “is something I need to feel good about.”
When asked Sunday where he would rate his chance of playing in the playoffs on a scale of 1 to 10, Horford responded, “I would say a 7. I really want to play. I don’t know if it’s the smartest thing for me physically but I want to be out there and I feel like it’s realistic.”
Horford’s return wouldn’t force the Celtics to quiver when thinking about round one, especially if his impact is diminished due to lingering effects of a torn pectoral muscle. But he does give Atlanta another dimension. At the time he was injured, the Hawks were 7-3 with victories against the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls.
Of course, the Celtics would still believe their late-game execution is enough to defeat the Hawks: Case in point, on April 11, the Hawks scored just two points against the Celtics in an entire overtime session. They tried to run a play for Joe Johnson on the final possession of regulation, but the Celtics defended that perfectly and Jannero Pargo ended up taking the final shot.
At some point in the past four seasons, the Hawks graduated — if that’s the term — from “the little engine that almost could” into “the overpaid collection of mediocre talent that still can’t.” The Celtics are banking on meeting the same Hawks this season that haven’t made much noise in any of the past three postseasons. Horford would like to think he can change that, but the Celtics will enter round one with utmost confidence.