Game Preview: Celtics at Hawks

Make your picks now in Celtics 3-Point Play

BOSTON – Home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs may be on the line when the Boston Celtics (37-26) visit the Atlanta Hawks (37-25) at 7 p.m. tonight in Philips Arena.

The Celtics currently hold onto the fourth seed in the East, one seed ahead of the Hawks, but Atlanta has a one-game lead in the loss column for home court advantage. The Hawks must finish with a better record than the Celtics this season in order to secure home court, should these teams meet in the playoffs. A tie or one-game lead for the C’s would result in Game 1 being played in Boston.

With only three games left on its schedule, this game is paramount for Boston. The Celtics control their own destiny in regard to home court advantage in the opening round. If they win their remaining three games, they will have the TD Garden faithful cheering them on in person when the playoffs open up.

Recording the first of those three wins will not be an easy task tonight. The C’s will be severely undermanned during this game. Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen and Mickael Pietrus all did not travel with the team to Atlanta due to an assortment of injuries. That same trio missed Wednesday night’s win over Orlando.

Conquering the Hawks, however, will prove to be a much more difficult challenge than knocking off an injury riddled Magic team. Orlando was without two of its top players, including Dwight Howard, who is considered by man to be the top center in the world. Atlanta, on the other hand, is approaching full health.

Al Horford, the team’s All-Star big man, has been out of the lineup since Jan. 11 with a left pectoral injury, but he was recently cleared for full contact and could return for the playoffs. He’s unlikely to play tonight. The only other player who appears on Atlanta’s injury report is backup center Zaza Pachulia, who is nursing a sprained left foot and is listed as day-to-day. He could play tonight but has missed the past three games.

The Celtics may be facing difficult odds in knocking off a pretty healthy and hot Hawks team, but they’ve already pulled off such a feat twice this season. Boston is 2-0 against Atlanta, and it wasn’t expected to grab either of those victories.

The first win came on March 19, in the sixth game of an eight-game road trip. The C’s had just come off of a hard-fought loss in Denver on March 17, a game in which two starters played more than 41 minutes and another, Paul Pierce, fouled out. Despite those factors and being on the road for more than a week at that point, Boston still came out and dominated the game. It led by as many as 15 points and outscored the Hawks in three of the four quarters.

Boston’s second win over Atlanta, on April 11, might have been more of a shock. The Celtics were less than 24 hours removed from an emotional victory in Miami when they took the floor in TD Garden that night. In other words, they won a hard fought game against the No. 2 seed in the East then took a long flight in the wee hours of the night before returning home for the second night of a back-to-back. Still, the Celtics forced an overtime session and outlasted the Hawks by just enough, winning 88-86.

These two teams have met twice this season and the Celtics have overcome the odds on both of those occasions. If they can go 3-for-3 in pulling off a challenging victory against Atlanta, they’ll have the inside track at opening up their playoff push at home next weekend.

The Pierce Factor

Pierce is coming off of two of the best performances of his season. He scored a total of 72 points in the Tuesday-Wednesday back-to-back this week and also dished out a career-high 14 assists in the second contest. He has been carrying the scoring load of late, but with Rondo sidelined, he is also taking on the role of distributor.

“He distributes because when Rondo’s not there – and we did it the last time if you remember when Rondo was out, Paul became like the point forward and I just think he does that,” said Doc Rivers Wednesday night. “He has the ability to do that and very few people can do that.”

Joe Johnson will defend Pierce tonight. Pierce logged only 14 points, five rebounds and four assists against him nine days ago. Boston’s captain will need to deliver much better numbers than that tonight for the C’s to win.

Pavlovic and Dooling’s Play

With both Allen and Pietrus sidelined, Sasha Pavlovic stepped into the starting lineup for Wednesday’s game. He recorded zero points, three rebounds and zero assists in nearly 24 minutes of action.

With so many key players missing, Boston will need Pavlovic to perform at a much higher level tonight. The team simply cannot beat a great opponent with one of its starters essentially being a non-factor.

The same goes for Keyon Dooling off the bench. Atlanta plays a small backcourt for the majority of its games, so Dooling may get some extra minutes tonight. He played fantastic defense Wednesday night and finished with a plus-10 number in the plus/minus category. His defense against Atlanta’s guards will be big for the C’s, and so will his final point total.

Empty the Tank

It’s never a good thing to look ahead, but the Celtics might just have to tonight. They may be short-handed and they may be on the road, but they know that beginning tomorrow they will have three consecutive off days for the first time since January (discounting the All-Star break).

With that fact in the back of their minds, the Celtics know that they can empty the proverbial tank tonight. They can play their hearts out and not have to worry about preserving energy for a game this weekend. Rivers, meanwhile, can lean heavily on his starters in terms of minutes if need be.