Arbella Series Preview: Celtics vs. Hawks

Arbella Playoffs

WALTHAM, Mass. – The Eastern Conference Quarterfinals series between the Boston Celtics and the Atlanta Hawks will tip off at 7 p.m. Sunday night in Philips Arena. Judging by the tone at Boston’s practice on Saturday, some fireworks should be expected over the course of the next week or two.

When the Celtics made their run to the 2008 NBA title, their first order of business was kicking the Hawks to the curb. Atlanta, making its first appearance in the postseason since 1999, gave Boston fits despite being the eighth seed in the East. The two teams went through a heated seven-game series before the Celtics advanced to the next round.

The memories of that series have long been forgotten by much of the NBA community. In Boston and Atlanta? Not so much.

“Oh I think it’s very fresh,” Doc Rivers convincingly said of that 2008 dogfight. “When you go through a series, you never forget it. And when you play that team during the regular season, the bad blood that happened stays. It never leaves.”

Many of the faces have changed on both sides since that series, but the key pieces still remain. Boston’s top four players and head coach are intact, while the Hawks continue to build around Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Marvin Williams.

That trio for Atlanta played well enough this season to preserve home court advantage in the first round. Despite the Celtics owning the higher seed as a result of winning the Atlantic Division, the Hawks finished with one more win. That one victory was good enough to make the C’s hit the road for Games 1 and 2.

Here’s a quick look at how these teams match up across the board.

The Coaches

Rivers can head into almost any playoff series with an advantage over the opposing head coach. This is not an exception.

Rivers is heading into his ninth postseason as a head coach, while Hawks head coach Larry Brown is only heading into his second. If neither team sweeps this series, Rivers will eclipse 100 career postseason games as a head coach in Game 5. Meanwhile, Drew will be coaching just his 13th career postseason game on Sunday.

Point Guards

Everyone knows who Rajon Rondo is, but Jeff Teague is still trying to make a name for himself in this league. Teague scored 12.6 PPG this season as Atlanta’s starting point guard and he isn’t shy about talking a little trash on the court.

He might want to take a step back in the trash-talking department during this series. Rondo, who just grabbed his first career assist title, thrives when motivated.

Don’t write the third-year guard off, though. Rivers has nothing but good things to say about Teague, calling him “a scoring point” and “lightning-quick.”

“When he plays well, they’re tough to beat,” said Rivers.

Shooting Guards

When the C’s and Hawks normally meet, the matchup to keep an eye on is Ray Allen versus Johnson. Not this time around.

Allen is dealing with a sore right ankle and Johnson has slid over to small forward. That means Avery Bradley and Kirk Hinrich will face off at shooting guard.

Bradley clearly has the leg up on defense, and based on his last month of play, he is also the better offensive player. The second-year guard averaged 15.1 PPG in April as the starting shooting guard. He shot 54.5 percent from 3-point range during that time.

Meanwhile, Hinrich has struggled offensively this season, scoring just 6.6 PPG on 41.4 percent shooting. Those numbers might become even worse against defenders like Bradley and Rondo.

Small Forwards

Look no further than this position to find the two biggest stars of the series. Paul Pierce and Johnson are the leading scorers for their teams. Their production in this series may actually be the deciding factor when all is said and done.

Pierce and Johnson have faced off against each other twice this season, and Johnson has had the upper hand. Johnson scored 19.5 PPG in those two contests, while Pierce averaged just 13.5 PPG.

Boston would love to have Pierce scoring consistently, but his defense is much more important. Johnson scored 21.0 PPG in Atlanta’s wins this season, but just 15.6 PPG in its losses. The C’s need Pierce to contain the Hawks’ star.

Power Forwards

Brandon Bass and Josh Smith are two players who are far different from each other when it comes to their style of play. Smith is more of a slasher who uses his athleticism to succeed, while the majority of Bass’ offense comes via spot-up jumpers. Smith, who averaged 18.8 PPG and 9.6 RPG this season, is the second option in Atlanta’s offense, while Bass defers to Garnett, Pierce, Rondo and sometimes Bradley.

Atlanta will go with a smaller lineup for the majority of this series, so these two players might not be matched up against each other for long.

Centers

Kevin Garnett might be able to own this position. Atlanta’s top center, Al Horford, is likely out for the series, and the return date of his backup, Zaza Pachulia, is still unknown. If neither of those players are available, Garnett will face off against journeyman Jason Collins.

Pachulia’s return could be a key to the series. He missed the final seven games of the regular season due to a strained left foot. If he’s not in the lineup, Boston might ride Garnett as far as the Big Ticket will take them.

The Benches

There are only two Boston reserves who we know are in the rotation, and those players are Mickael Pietrus and Greg Stiemsma. The third player in what is likely to be an eight-man rotation depends on the status of Allen.

Allen has been out with a sore right ankle since April 10 and did not partake in either of Boston’s practices leading up to Game 1. Rivers didn’t seem optimistic that the all-time 3-point king will be out there on Sunday.

“Honestly, I don’t think he’ll play [Sunday], but we’ll find that out,” said Rivers. “He can play, so I’m not saying he’s not, and it’d be very nice if he does, but he’s just not moving well, and we’ll just find out.”

Without the services of Allen, Rivers will likely turn to Sasha Pavlovic, Marquis Daniels, or both, to fill out the rotation.

Atlanta’s bench is a bit more secure. They know who they are, and they’re very good at what they do. Drew goes with a small lineup for the majority of games, which allows reserves like Williams, Willie Green, Ivan Johnson and Tracy McGrady to make an impact. Rivers understands that those players possess a lot of firepower.

“Their bench, I think, may be the key to the series,” said Rivers on Friday. “When their bench plays well, they don’t lose”