Game Preview: Celtics at Hawks

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BOSTON – The Boston Celtics (20-22) are hoping that they don’t arrive for tonight’s 7:30 p.m. game in Atlanta against the Hawks (24-18) as late as they arrived at their hotel last night.

Following their 89-86 home loss to the Knicks Thursday night, the Celtics flew to Atlanta and did not arrive at their hotel until about 4 a.m. Now they’ll have to bounce back quickly after a long night and take on a Hawks team that has won two straight contests.

Boston, meanwhile, has fallen in five consecutive games. Doc Rivers has let it be known during this streak that he has not been fond of the team’s overall effort. However, he believes that the team performed well in that category on Thursday night.

“I thought both teams played hard,” Rivers said after the loss. “I don’t think either team played great, but if I saw that effort every night I’d be very happy.”

Rivers and the Celtics both understand that they won’t be fully energized for tonight’s game. That doesn’t mean that they can’t still play hard. Just take Boston’s win over Atlanta on January 5 as an example.

The Celtics played Indiana at 8 p.m. on January 4 in TD Garden. They won that contest by 19 points, allowing Rivers to limit all of his players to less than 30 minutes of playing time. The team then boarded a plane and flew down to Atlanta on nearly the exact same schedule that they faced last night.

What did Boston do when it took the court the next night? It came out flat, but it finished with a fury. The C’s defense dismantled Atlanta in the second half, limiting the Hawks to just 28 total points and an embarrassing field goal percentage of 25 percent.

Meanwhile, at the other end, Boston excelled. The Celts, led by 17 points from Paul Pierce and 10 points from Rajon Rondo, racked up 51 points in the second half on 52.3 percent shooting. Rondo’s six assists in the second half doubled the total that the entire Hawks team accumulated over the final two quarters.

Rivers’ players gave an incredible effort during that win over the Hawks. They played hard last night, too, but it was all in vain.

The Celtics face a difficult challenge tonight but they have proven before that they can overcome it. They’ve played at 8 p.m. in Boston one night and then defeated the Hawks the next night in Atlanta. Now all they need to do is accomplish that hefty feat once more.

No More Sweet Lou

The Hawks were dealt a major blow on January 18 when Lou Williams tore the ACL in his right knee while playing against the Brooklyn Nets. Williams, who signed with the Hawks this past offseason, is out for the remainder of the 2012-13 campaign.

Words can’t explain how great of a loss Williams is to the Hawks. He was the team’s top perimeter scorer through the first 39 games of the season and he has always been a threat to get hot and win a game by himself. Williams was one of the only bright spots against the Celtics back on January 5, as he finished with a game-high 28 points on 9-of-12 shooting.

Without Williams in the fold, the Hawks are a much easier team to defend. Atlanta is still a talented team with a strong frontcourt, but they took a substantial hit when they lost their most powerful scoring threat.

Balanced Rebounding

Both of these teams rank in the bottom five of the NBA in overall rebounding. However, Atlanta has two players in Al Horford (9.8 RPG) and Josh Smith (8.3 RPG) who rank in the top 25 in the NBA when it comes to rebounds. The Celtics, on the other hand, don’t have anyone who’s grabbing more than 7.1 RPG.

Those facts didn’t prevent the C’s from pounding Atlanta on the glass earlier this month. Boston used a balanced rebounding attack to outrebound the Hawks by a count of 44-36. Three Celtics grabbed at least nine boards in that game, and six grabbed at least four.

Despite that effort, balanced rebounding hasn’t been a strong point for the Celtics this season. There’s a reason why they’re next to last in the league in grabbing boards. However, they have shown that they can do it against Atlanta, and they will need to do it again tonight.

Play with Confidence

The highs are high and the lows are low in the NBA. There’s no team that knows that better than the Celtics this season.

Boston rattled off a season-best six-game win streak earlier in January. That streak resulted in many onlookers believing that the Celtics had turned it around for good. Smiles were abound and everything was positive - at least until that streak ended.

Now the C’s are on a five-game losing streak and their body language has reversed. Their confidence has taken a hit and that is clear on the court. On a critical possession last night, several players passed on open shots. It may have been a bit of over-passing, but it also had to do with shaken confidence.

They won’t win without confidence tonight. The Celtics need to act as if they’re the team to beat, just like they did back on January 5.