Arbella Game 5 Preview: Celtics at Hawks

Arbella Playoffs

BOSTON – It’s close-out time for the Boston Celtics (3-1).

Boston takes its show on the road at 8 p.m. tonight in Philips Arena for Game 5 of its Eastern Conference Quarterfinals matchup against the Atlanta Hawks (1-3). The Celtics gained a split during the first two games of the series that were played down in Atlanta.

That split helped the C’s steal home court away from the Hawks exactly one week ago. They then returned to Boston and won two straight in TD Garden. Those three consecutive wins put the team on the doorstep of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

“You can feel the momentum rolling on our side,” said Doc Rivers after the team’s most recent victory.

Although Boston has been rolling as a team over the course of the past three games, two specific players have led the charge: Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce.

Rondo has taken his game to another level since returning from a one-game suspension that was served during Game 2. He put up averages of 18.5 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 14.0 APG and 3.5 SPG over the past two contests. To state it simply, Atlanta has no answers for him at either end of the floor.

While Rondo has been leaving his mark on every aspect of the game, Pierce has held down the title of top scorer for Boston over the past two contests. He accomplished that goal in Game 3 by nailing all 14 of his free throws. In Game 4, Pierce did it with a hot shooting night from the field, where he shot 10-of-13 in less than 17 minutes of playing time.

“He was just on fire,” Rivers said to describe Pierce’s performance in Game 4.

Boston might need similarly dominant games from Pierce and Rondo tonight, because the Hawks will empty the tank in an effort to prolong their season.

Atlanta must win every game it plays for the remainder of this series in order to prevent its season from ending. The Hawks believe they’re ready to take on that challenge.

“You better believe that we’re coming; we’re bringing it at home,” Al Horford said Sunday night. “We’re looking forward to it.”

It’s probably safe to assume that Horford’s statement might have been a bit of an embellishment – after all, who looks forward to an elimination game? – but the Hawks will certainly give it their all tonight. Luckily for them, the team is approaching full health for the first time in months.

Josh Smith has had a full week to recover from the left knee sprain he suffered in Game 2 and Horford, who hadn’t played in nearly four months, returned to Atlanta’s lineup for Game 4. One would expect that both of those players will be much better suited to lead their team to victory tonight than they were on Sunday.

Atlanta may be nearing full strength, but the Celtics couldn’t care less. Boston is worried about itself, and it’s ready to take a step into the next round.

“[The Hawks] are NBA players so there is a chance we could lose Game 5, but it’s not in our mind,” Rondo said. “We’re gonna go down there and try to take care of business.”

Boston’s Health

As we learned after Game 4, the Celtics were at full health in terms of active players Sunday night, but many of those players were nursing serious injuries.

Avery Bradley

Avery Bradley, who played in Game 4 despite an injured left shoulder, is one of several Celtics who are nursing injuries.
Boston Globe/NBAE/Getty

“We had a lot of things going on on our bench [Sunday] with bodies,” Rivers said. “You know, MP’s (Mickael Pietrus) hamstring, we had to take him out. Avery’s (Bradley) shoulder, Paul’s knee, Ray’s (Allen) foot. The whole game you just felt like – I mean, you just kept looking down there (wondering): was there enough guys to put in the game?”

The team’s dominant effort helped them blow the Hawks out, so many of those injured players rested their ailing bodies in the second half. We’ll see if that rest, combined with a day off, will be enough to have the group ready to play tonight.

Knock, Knock: Is Joe There?

When you think about the Atlanta Hawks, you think about Joe Johnson. He is the team’s perennial All-Star and has led the Hawks in scoring for the past seven seasons.

He didn’t lead the Hawks in scoring Sunday night.

Johnson was passive throughout the contest while Boston dominated his team. He took only eight shots on the night. One would be hard-pressed to find a star in this league who would be willing to take only eight shots in a game in which his team needed to win.

With Sunday’s no-show fresh in his mind, expect Johnson to come out in Game 5 with heightened aggression. He is a great player, and he’ll need to be great tonight if he wants to extend his team’s season.

Keep the Foot Down

The Celtics dismantled the Hawks in Game 4 and it all started in the opening minute of action. Boston picked Atlanta apart and the Hawks could not withstand the punches.

“It started the first six minutes of the game,” Hawks coach Larry Drew said. “We did not respond very well to the pressure, to the aggressiveness that they were playing with.”

If Boston can come out and duplicate that effort tonight, there’s a possibility the Hawks will fold. Atlanta couldn’t respond to that pressure in the swing game of this series, so how could it expect to withstand the pressure in a game in which their season is on the line?

The C’s have seen teams quit in this situation over the past few seasons, namely the Cavaliers in 2010 and the Lakers in 2008. Boston would love to add the Hawks to that list tonight.