Game Preview: Hawks at Celtics

Make your picks now in Celtics 3-Point Play

BOSTON – The relentless schedule continues for the Boston Celtics (33-24) when they play host to the Atlanta Hawks (34-23) at 8 p.m. tonight in TD Garden. Not only is Boston playing for the second time in two nights, but it’s also set to play in a game that will leave a lasting mark on the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

The good news for the C’s is that they’re coming off of an impressive road victory against the Miami Heat last night. That win kept them within one game of Atlanta for home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately for Boston, the bad news for the team also happens to be that it is coming off of an impressive road victory last night.

In order to knock off the Heat, Doc Rivers was forced to give big minutes to all of his top players. Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo each logged more than 40 minutes of action, followed by Brandon Bass (39 minutes), Ray Allen (35 minutes) and Kevin Garnett (33 minutes). The C’s essentially played a seven-man rotation for the entire game.

That rotation worked in a big way, as the offense was absolutely unstoppable. Boston shot an incredible 60.6 percent in the game that included a 9-of-14 performance from 3-point range. Paul Pierce led the way with 27 points, while Kevin Garnett came through with several big baskets in the clutch on his way to 24 points.

It was the Celtics’ second win over the Heat in a nine-day span, and that’s always a good thing. However, with the heavy minutes doled out to key players, Boston isn’t exactly in a great position heading into tonight’s game against the Hawks. Now Boston will head into the second night of a back-to-back against a very rested – and very good – Atlanta team.

The Hawks, who have won three in a row, are coming off of three days of rest. That many days off are almost unheard of this season in the NBA. In comparison, the last time Boston had three consecutive days off outside of the All-Star break was way back in early January. That is the only time the C’s have experienced such a break this season.

This is the first time the Hawks have been given a three-day break in 2011-12. They last played on Saturday and dominated the Charlotte Bobcats in a 116-96 victory. Eight Hawks players scored at least 11 points in the contest thanks to an overall shooting percentage of 52.4 percent.

In reality, Atlanta hasn’t played a challenging basketball game since is took down the Pistons Friday night in Atlanta. Given that fact, the Hawks will be playing on very well rested legs tonight, to say the least.

It’s evident that one team will come into tonight’s game fully charged while the other will have to dig deep to grab another important win. It’s the story of Boston’s schedule this season: another night, another challenging contest. The C’s have been delivering in these situations for the past six weeks, and now it’s time to do so again.

The Playoff Picture

Tonight’s game will almost certainly have an impact on the final Eastern Conference playoff picture. As currently constituted, Atlanta and Boston would meet in the first round of the playoffs. Although the Celtics would be the higher seed, the Hawks would have home court advantage thanks to a better winning percentage.

That can all change tonight if Boston can grab a win. The Celtics trail the Hawks by one game, so a win tonight would even the teams up. In addition to giving the teams the exact same record with eight games remaining on the schedule, a win for Boston would give them the tie-breaker should these two teams finish with the exact same record.

Home court advantage is incredibly important in the NBA. The energy a team can pull from a crowd is immeasurable, and sleeping in your own bed goes a long way. Tonight’s game might determine which of these two teams will hold those advantages in the first round of the postseason.

Garnett’s Impact

As everyone in the country saw last night, KG has officially turned back the clock. Some of the shots he put home in the fourth quarter of Boston’s win over the Heat were circa 2004. He is playing such incredible basketball, and the Celtics feel as if they can lean on him right now.

“We kept giving him the ball and he just kept coming through,” Paul Pierce said last night. “He’s on a wonderful stretch. The last 20 games, he’s been playing just unbelievable.”

But will he be able to do so again after playing more than 33 minutes last night, including the entire fourth quarter? That’s a big question both teams will be eager to answer tonight.

The Captain’s Defense

LeBron James may have scored 36 points last night against Pierce and the Celtics, but they didn’t come easy. Most of his 11 made field goals came via perimeter jumpers and he was gift-wrapped many of his 13 made free throws. Pierce played pretty darn good defense against the world’s best talent.

Now Pierce has another challenge tonight against a completely different player.

Joe Johnson, a six-time All-Star as a shooting guard, has slid over to the small forward position for 18 games this season. He has scored an average of 21.1 PPG in those contests, a nice spike up from his season average of 18.9 PPG.

One of those 18 games at small forward came against Boston on March 19. Johnson scored 25 points in that game on 9-of-17 shooting, and he had Pierce in foul trouble all night long. Pierce finished the game with five fouls and played only 27 minutes.

The captain will need to avoid similar foul trouble tonight. Boston needs his offense and defense on the court for at least 30 minutes of game action.