Game Preview: Celtics at Hawks

BOSTON – The offense is back. The defense is back. Rondo is back. That’s what we can determine after the Boston Celtics’ 107-97 win over the Spurs on Thursday night.

Now, one night later, the Celtics (52-20) will look to back up those descriptions when they take on the Hawks (43-32) at 8 p.m. tonight in Atlanta in the second night of a back-to-back.

Boston returned to its dominant ways during Thursday’s win in San Antonio by scoring at least 28 points in three of the four quarters and limiting the Spurs to just 43.3 percent shooting in the game. The C’s went on a 14-0 run in the third quarter to turn a four-point deficit into a 10-point lead.

That type of play is what Boston has become accustomed to this season, but it had been nonexistent for the previous three weeks. The win over San Antonio may have come at just the right time, as the C’s will now take that momentum into Atlanta for a difficult back-to-back.

Playing on consecutive nights has been the consistent Achilles’ heel of this Celtics team all season long, in addition to health. Boston is just 7-9 in the second night of back-to-backs this season and just took a crushing loss to the Pacers on Monday in such a situation. With the momentum from last night’s win in their back pocket, the C’s may be able to turn the tide on that trend tonight in Atlanta, where they blew out the Hawks way back on Nov. 22.

That 99-76 win over the Hawks in Atlanta could be considered as the turning point of Boston’s season. The Celtics were coming off of consecutive losses to either shorthanded of underwhelming opponents, and they responded with a dominant performance over a Hawks team that has given them fits in the past. In fact, that win over Atlanta, in the Celts limited the Hawks shot just 34.6 percent, was the second night of a back-to-back for Boston. That win sparked a 14-game win streak, which is the longest the league has seen this season.

With that game in mind, the Celtics already know that they can strut into Atlanta and grab a win in the exact situation they will be facing tonight. This Hawks team has consistently challenged Boston over the past four seasons, beginning with a seven-game first round series during the 2008 playoffs, but the C’s have cracked the code and can finish off a season sweep of Atlanta tonight.

The second of Boston’s two wins over the Hawks this season came on Dec. 16 in the Garden. The Celtics pulled out that 102-90 win with the help of six players scoring in double-figures, including all five starters. On the flip side, the Hawks had three of their starters combine for just nine points, including a one-point performance from Josh Smith.

Semih Erden was the spot starter at center for Boston in that game, and the C’s will need to toss another spot starter into that role tonight. Nenad Krstic, who has started all 18 of his games with the Celtics since being acquired at the trade deadline, went down last night with a knee injury that will be further diagnosed on Saturday when he undergoes an MRI. His absence means that Glen Davis will likely get the start at center, and Jermaine O’Neal may be forced into extra minutes during his second game back from his left knee surgery.

Boston will need to rely heavily on those two players tonight, and based on their performance last night in San Antonio, that could be a good thing. Davis finished the night with 16 points and eight rebounds off the bench for Boston and made eight of his 12 field goal attempts. O’Neal, meanwhile, recorded modest numbers of five points, one rebound and one assist, but his defensive presence, 2-of-2 shooting and lateral movement were all indications that he can contribute right now.

Having Davis start at center would typically be a large disadvantage for the C’s, purely from a size standpoint, but the Hawks will likely play a lineup for most of the night that lands Al Horford in their center position. Jason Collins has been Atlanta’s starting center lately, but he has also been playing limited minutes. This means that Horford, who is just 6-foot-10, will likely eat up most of the minutes at center tonight.

Atlanta has used that center combination to win three straight games, including an 85-82 win over the Orlando Magic on Wednesday. The Hawks are almost guaranteed to finish as the fifth seed in the East and could be a second round opponent for the C’s if Boston somehow manages to reclaim the top seed in the conference.

Such a thought can be discussed because the playoffs are right around the corner. Boston’s win in San Antonio is an indication that the team is ramping up for that playoff run. A win tonight in the second night of a back-to-back, which would give the Celtics a 3-1 record on their four-game road trip, would send a message to the rest of the league that last night’s win was no fluke and that the C’s are back for the long haul.

Shutting Down Smith

Smith is one of the most athletic players in the game, but he has been in a confusing role this season that has been bumping him back and forth from small forward to power forward. While playing power forward against the Celtics in these teams’ first two meetings of the season, Smith scored a total of three points in two games on 1-of-14 shooting.

We like to call that the Kevin Garnett effect. When KG can keep up with Smith physically, which he has been able to do this season with his great health, he can affect Smith’s shot with length and timing. Smith hasn’t been able to overcome those factors and has essentially been a nonfactor against the C’s this season. If Atlanta plays Smith at power forward tonight and Garnett can replicate that defense, Boston will likely be adding to its win total.

Running Rondo

Rondo has slowly been returning to his dominant ways and put up an incredible stat line against Tony Parker and the Spurs last night. He finished with a team-high 22 points as well as five rebounds, 14 assists and zero turnovers. With Rondo back to running rampant on opponents, the Hawks, and Kirk Hinrich, in particular, might be in for a long night.

The Hawks haven’t even seen Rondo in action this season, as Nate Robinson was Boston’s starting center for both of their wins over Atlanta. This means that Atlanta will get its first look at the All-Star point guard who is having a career year. Judging by what we saw last night from Rondo, the Hawks might be wishing by the end of this game that they could have avoided him for a third time this season.

Ball Movement

Boston had gone 10 straight games without breaking triple-digits in scoring before their 100-point effort against the Indiana Pacers on Monday. The Celtics followed that scoring surge up with a 107-point scoring night against the Spurs on Thursday that featured 54.8 percent shooting. The reason for the increase in scoring can be attributed to two words: ball movement.

The Celtics have racked up 48 assists over the past two games, including a whopping 29 last night in San Antonio. Rondo has been the key to those high assist totals, as he has dished out 22 dimes compared to just one turnover in those contests. Paul Pierce also chipped in seven assists during last night’s win.

There is no doubt that when the ball is hopping around Boston’s offense, the team is going to score points. Moving the ball allows the team to get open looks, and with the amount of weapons the C’s have on offense, that’s typically going to result in a very efficient scoring night.