Game Preview: Hawks at Celtics

BOSTON – The second night of a back-to-back is never a fun one for any NBA team. The Celtics will take the court tonight for their sixth such game of the season, and it may be the most difficult one yet.

One night removed from a thrilling win in New York City that took every ounce of energy Boston (20-4) had to offer, it will host the resurgent Atlanta Hawks (16-10) at 8 p.m. tonight in the TD Garden.

Paul Pierce’s 14-foot jumper with 0.4 seconds remaining on the clock gave the Celtics a 118-116 win over the Knicks last night that simultaneously extended his team’s winning streak to a season-high 11 games. Interestingly enough, that streak began just under a month ago against the team Boston will host tonight.

The streak of 11 straight wins was born on Nov. 22 in Atlanta when the Celtics played what may be their most impressive game of the season. The final score of that contest was 99-76, in favor of Boston, but the game wasn’t even as close as that score would indicate.

Atlanta had no answers for the Celtics at either end of the floor, as Boston’s balanced offensive attack shot 53.3 percent from the floor. At the defensive end, the C’s limited the Hawks to 34.6 percent shooting and did not allow a single Hawks player could muster up more than 11 points. Only one Atlanta player, Jordan Crawford with seven, grabbed more than four rebounds in the contest.

It was a true domination by Boston, and the team has stated publicly that it was the turning point of their season to this point.

“I can say Atlanta was probably the first game I remember where we were talking (defensively),” Kevin Garnett said after the team’s win over Denver on Dec. 8. “If you were three, four rows in the front you could hear us. I think we’ve been using that game as a roadmap as we need to be defensively.”

The roadmap Garnett is alluding to has led the Celtics to the top of the league in terms of overall defense. They had allowed only 86.1 PPG to their opponents through the first 10 games of the current win streak before surrendering 116 to the Knicks last night. That shutdown defense has resulted in the league’s best defensive efficiency rating (97.2) and the second-ranked opponent PPG average (92.0). In addition to the scoring, opponents have shot only 43.7 percent against Boston this season, which isn’t far behind Miami’s league-leading number of 42.6 percent.

Boston hasn’t been the only team that has stepped up its defense since that blowout in Atlanta, though. After stumbling into that last matchup with the C’s, the Hawks have picked up their game as well.

Atlanta has won eight of its last 11 games and opponents have scored only 92.6 PPG during that stretch. That improvement at the defensive end has helped the team turn things around after losing seven of its nine games from Nov. 7 to Nov. 23.

The Celtics will experience a quick turnaround from that entertaining win on Wednesday in New York, and it may cause some problems for them tonight. Rajon Rondo sprained his left ankle last night and is listed as day-to-day, but it’s difficult to imagine him being on the court tonight. In addition, Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen all played at least 36 minutes and Shaquille O’Neal is questionable.

Those factors, combined with the fact that both teams are playing very good basketball, are indications that tonight’s contest will be much more competitive than the first time around. Boston fought tooth and nail for a victory last night in New York, and it may have to do the same tonight on its home court.

Control the Boards

The Celtics’ defense was fantastic during that first win over Atlanta on Nov. 22, but the rebounding may have been even better. Boston showed energy across the board and wound up outrebounding the Hawks by a count of 50-30. That number is very because the Hawks are a solid rebounding team that pulls in 40.1 boards a night.

Atlanta is well-balanced when it comes to rebounding and it will be very difficult for the C’s to duplicate that effort on the glass again tonight. That fact is made especially true if O’Neal misses his fourth straight game with a sore right calf. Without Shaq, who dominated Atlanta with 13 points and 11 boards in only 21 minutes of action in November, the C’s will be forced to play on short rest with a limited frontline. One way or another, Boston will have to find a way to play well on the boards, as that is one of the most important ingredients to beating the Hawks.

Is Bradley Ready?

Fans have been calling for some Avery Bradley this season, and they might get their wish tonight. Rondo’s left ankle sprain looked horrendous last night, as the outside of his left ankle touched down to the floor. He came back into the game and finished with 34 minutes of playing time, but the ankle has now had a day to swell up, and that may prevent him from taking the court tonight.

As a result, Nate Robinson will likely become the starter. Robinson has already tested his ability as a starter this season and he has performed extremely well, which means the real question is if the C’s will be able to get quality minutes out of Avery Bradley behind him.

Bradley has seen very limited minutes this season, having played in short spurts of only five games. Rivers has been candid when speaking about Bradley this season and has said the rookie point guard is still learning the system.

If Bradley gets into the game tonight and is forced to play big minutes, he must be ready to perform. The Celtics know they can get fantastic on-the-ball defense from him, but they’ll have to see if he can run the offense efficiently and hit some open shots as well.

No J.J. for the Hawks

Atlanta gave max contract money to Joe Johnson this summer because it felt he is the future of the franchise. Sadly for the Hawks, they lost that cornerstone until at least January after he suffered an injury to his right elbow that required arthroscopic surgery.

With Johnson on the sideline, many expected last season’s Sixth Man of the Year, Jamal Crawford, to enter into the starting lineup at shooting guard. Instead, Hawks rookie head coach Larry Drew has opted to leave Crawford as the sixth man and insert Maurice Evans into the starting lineup.

The odd, yet understandable move has paid off on most nights. Atlanta has won five of its eight games since their top player went down, and Crawford has averaged 19.4 PPG off the bench during those wins. Crawford has lit the C’s up in the past, but he scored only 10 points and took only six shots in the first meeting of the season. Without Johnson in the lineup, someone is going to have to pick up the scoring, and the Hawks will likely turn to their instant-offense guard off the bench to do so.