Game Preview: Celtics at Hawks

Make your picks now in Celtics 3-Point Play

BOSTON – The Boston Celtics (15-17) made winning look easy Friday night against the Indiana Pacers, grabbing a 94-75 victory. They’ve won convincingly on other nights this season, but those previous victories haven't led to any sort of momentum.

The hope is that Friday’s win, termed a “substance win” by Doc Rivers, will be different. We’ll all find out if that is the case when the C’s return to the court at 7 p.m. tonight in Atlanta when they take on the Hawks (20-11).

Rivers believes that Friday’s victory was one of substance because the Celtics showcased an identity. They played with an impenetrable defense. They were physical. They won ugly.

All of those statements could be used to describe past Celtics teams - teams that made runs to the Conference Finals and NBA Finals. Friday night, that old grind-it-out swagger was back, specifically at the defensive end.

“I thought we came out firm and aggressive on both ends, but more importantly defensively,” said Kevin Garnett. “I thought we stayed sound for 48 minutes no matter who was in.”

Garnett is right on the mark with that comment because the Celtics played great defense across the board. Boston limited Indiana to just 31.8 percent shooting, and seven C’s blocked at least one shot while eight grabbed at least one steal. It was a complete team effort at that end of the floor.

Tonight’s opponent, the Hawks, weren’t too shabby at the defensive end either when they played the Pistons on Friday night. Atlanta limited Detroit to 41.2 percent shooting on the night and the Pistons hit just three of their 15 3-point attempts. However, the Hawks shot just 41.3 percent from the field themselves and attempted 10 less shots than the Pistons did. Those limited shot attempts led to an 85-84 loss.

Smith, Pierce

Paul Pierce is likely to be defended by Kyle Korver and Josh Smith tonight.
Mike Zarrilli/NBAE/Getty Images

Many expected losing to be a regularity in Atlanta this season after the departure of two of their longtime staples. Joe Johnson was traded to Brooklyn and Marvin Williams was traded to Utah. That’s 40 percent of Atlanta’s starting lineup that had been a playoff team for several seasons.

The Hawks have avoided falling off because they now have much greater balance. All five of their starters average between 10.6 and 17.0 points per game. Atlanta ranks third in the league with 23.52 APG and is a top-10 team in terms of field goal percentage. Both of those numbers are indications that this new group of Hawks plays extremely well together.

The same could be said for the Pacers as well. Indiana isn’t a great offensive team, but it had won nine out of 11 games heading into Friday night’s contest in TD Garden. All the Celtics did was wallop the Pacers in a laugher.

The C’s are now faced with another difficult task against a Hawks team that is proving all of its naysayers wrong. There’s no doubt that Boston will need to bring that defensive swagger again tonight in order to maintain its momentum.

Team Rebounding

The Celtics faced the fifth-best rebounding team in the league Friday night and finished the game with a 49-47 advantage. How? With team rebounding; six Celtics grabbed at least five rebounds in the contest, led by Jared Sullinger’s 10.

Boston will need the same type of team effort tonight. Atlanta has three great rebounders in Al Horford (9.7 RPG), Josh Smith (9.1 RPG) and Zaza Pachulia (7.1 RPG). The rest of the roster is very capable of crashing the glass as well. Rivers and his staff will need to remind every one of their players throughout this game that when they’re on the floor, they need to be conscious about rebounding.

Get the Ball to Pierce

Atlanta has chosen to go with a starting lineup this season that features three guards, including Kyle Korver. Korver is 6-foot-7, which is tall enough to play small forward, but he does not have the physical ability to keep up with Paul Pierce’s offensive repertoire.

If the Celtics are smart, they’ll get the ball to Pierce early and often. Even if Pierce winds up being defended by Smith, the captain should be in good shape, as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is reporting that Smith aggravated his hip flexor last night and only played 12 minutes in the second half.

Make Horford Earn it

Rivers is a big fan of Horford’s game. The sixth-year center out of Florida is a scorer, rebounder and defender and he makes an enormous impact on every game he’s in. The one thing he isn’t great at, however, is foul shooting.

Horford is shooting just 56.7 percent from the free-throw line this season, which isn’t much better than that Dwight Howard guy in Los Angeles, who is receiving quite a bit of flak for his 51.1 percent clip from the free-throw line. Boston knows that Horford has struggled at the line and it will likely take advantage of that. The C’s won’t give him easy buckets and will instead opt to send him to the line.