Arbella Game 6 Preview: Hawks at Celtics

Arbella Playoffs

BOSTON – A loss in Game 5 to the Atlanta Hawks (2-3) has left the Boston Celtics (3-2) with a second chance to close out their first-round series. This time that opportunity will arrive in Boston.

The C’s and Hawks will meet for Game 6 at 8 p.m. tonight in TD Garden in a game that will result in either Boston advancing to the next round or the Hawks staving off elimination yet again.

Atlanta pulled off an 87-86 win Tuesday night in Philips arena to prolong its season by at least another game. That victory cut Boston’s series lead to 3-2 and potentially put some momentum in Atlanta’s favor. However, the series has now shifted back to Boston and the Celtics will have their home crowd rooting them on tonight.

Boston and Atlanta have played two games in TD Garden during this series and the Celts have come out on top in both of them. The first was a 90-84 victory in overtime and the second was a 101-79 blowout. Tonight’s contest will likely be closer to the former if Game 5 was any indication.

Paul Pierce

Paul Pierce struggled to hit shots Tuesday night, including this final attempt with 18.9 seconds left in regulation.
Mike Zarrilli/NBAE/Getty

These two teams went down to the wire Tuesday night in Atlanta, and the Celtics were one bucket away from moving on to the next round. It was a back-and-forth game, with each team making big runs. Rajon Rondo nearly saved the day for Boston when he stole an inbounds pass with 10.9 seconds remaining in the game. That steal gave the C’s the ball on the final possession of the game with an opportunity to win, but without a timeout in the bag they were unable to run an effective play and failed to score.

That loss surely stung the C’s, and there are a few steps they’ll need to take tonight in order to avoid a similar result. First of all, they will need to match the intensity level of the Hawks.

“Overall, I thought they played harder and better than us,” Doc Rivers said after the loss.

In addition to removing that advantage from Atlanta, Boston will also need to receive a better offensive performance from Paul Pierce while slowing down Al Horford.

Pierce, who is playing through a sprained left knee, struggled mightily Tuesday night. He had no lift on his jumper and finished the night shooting 7-of-17 from the field. Pierce shot an airball on a pretty good look from his sweet spot with 18.9 seconds left in the game, a strong indication that he simply was not right. The hope is that 48 hours between games will allow that knee to heal enough for Pierce to bounce back and shoot the ball effectively tonight.

While Pierce was struggling with his injury, Horford excelled as he played through his. In just his second game back from a four-month absence due to a torn left pectoral muscle, Horford was dominant with a game-high 19 points that went along with 11 boards, three assists and three blocks. He changes the dynamic of Atlanta’s team at both ends of the floor, allowing Joe Johnson to shift back to shooting guard and Marvin Williams to step in as the starting small forward.

The Celtics struggled against that lineup Tuesday night. None of Atlanta’s starters finished with a negative plus/minus rating. Boston will need to make several adjustments against this new Hawks team tonight if it hopes to close this series in front of its home crowd.

Bodies on Bigs

Game 5 brought back memories of Boston’s regular-season kryptonite: rebounding. Atlanta won the rebounding department by a count of 41-33, and it was almost entirely due to the fact that the C’s couldn’t contain Atlanta’s two starting big men.

Horford and Josh Smith combined for 27 rebounds Tuesday night. That’s just six less than the entire Celtics team. Those two starting big men dominated the glass while not a single Boston player grabbed more than seven rebounds.

There’s no doubt that in order to grab this win, Kevin Garnett, Brandon Bass and every other big man on Boston’s roster will need to get their bodies into Smith and Horford on every single shot attempt. The C’s cannot afford to be dominated on the glass again.

These Hawks are Different

What got into the Hawks during Game 5? It was the presence of an effective Horford.

The Hawks’ lineup changes dramatically with Horford on the floor, which alters the way Boston plays defense. In prior games, when Jason Collins or Erick Dampier were playing center, the C’s could toss Bass or any reserve big man on those players while Garnett defended Smith. That can’t happen now with Horford on the floor. Boston needs Garnett, the team’s best rebounder, to be matched up with Horford.

That may seem like a minimal change, but it makes a world of difference. Now the Hawks can use Smith in post-up situations against Bass and others, which forces Boston to double-team. In Game 5, the Hawks burned the C’s with 3-pointers when Boston chose to double-team.

Riled Up Rondo

Many NBA analysts around the country believe Rondo is the best player on this talented Celtics squad. Boston needs him to prove those analysts correct for the entirety of Game 6 tonight.

Rondo finished Game 5 with a solid box score line of 13 points, five rebounds and 12 assists. That looks great on the surface, but the majority of that production came in the second half. Rondo headed into halftime with just five points, two rebounds and two assists to his credit.

The Celtics cannot afford to have Rondo show up for one of the two halves tonight. They need him to be the dominant force he can be for every minute he’s on the floor.