By Matt Winkeljohn, for NBA.com
Posted Apr 27 2012 8:32PM
In the final week of the regular season, when it was obvious that the Hawks and Celtics would meet in the first round of the postseason but not clear where, Boston coach Doc Rivers and Hawks coach Larry Drew faced the same question: What's more important, health or home-court?
The answer for Rivers was clear on the last Friday of the season -- in Atlanta -- when Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett wore fancy suits on the sideline while Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen and Mickael Pietrus stayed in Boston as the Hawks won. Ditto a Tuesday home game against Miami although the C's won.
Drew took the other approach. Before the regular-season finale against Dallas, with home-court still in the balance, he made his view clear.
"Personally, I want home court," he said. "I think it's important for this club."
The Hawks got it, and with Game 1 to be played Sunday night in Atlanta, the prospect of this series being as competitive, or combative, as it was in 2008 -- when the top-seeded Celtics needed all seven games to dispatch the No. 8 Hawks -- may hinge on half the original question: whose health will be more of an issue?
Rondo put together an amazing second half when healthy as a regular triple-double threat. He returned to action Thursday against the Bucks after missing three games, but who can predict back spasms? Allen missed the final nine games, and the bone spurs in his ankles are a legitimate concern.
Pietrus has a bum knee, rookie big man Greg Stiemsma missed the final two games with recurring foot problems, and the guy in front of him, Garnett, has been slowed by a hip flexor after playing brilliantly after the All-Star game.
Boston's list of ailing players is longer, yet the Hawks may short-staffed in the middle if they end up having to start center Jason Collins (1.3 ppg, 1.6 rpg).
All-Star center Al Horford has been out since tearing a pectoral muscle in early January, and Zaza Pachulia missed the final seven regular-season games with a sprained left foot. Horford wanted to return in time for the playoffs, but has been ruled out of the first round at least.
"I'm not getting my hopes up too high that we will have him," Drew said of Pachulia. "[The Celtics] are comfortable playing on the road, and confident."
1. Can the Hawks compete without a viable offensive threat at center?
This is a trick question because while Atlanta was 8-2 in games started by the 7-foot Collins, he had little to do with their fate. Often, he won't play double-digit minutes even when he starts, and Drew will play Josh Smith and rookie reserve forward Ivan Johnson in the pivot. The Hawks become more athletic in these situations, yet more vulnerable to a true low-post/back-to-the-basket player. At last check, Boston no longer employs either Robert Parish or Kevin McHale. Garnett spends as much time facing the basket as not.
2. Will Allen impact this series?
If he plays, and he's himself, then absolutely. This is not as simple as the inarguable value of having one of the NBA's all-time snipers running around screens and traversing the baseline to find holes in the Atlanta defense. The fact is that when he's on and bombing from beyond the arc it can throw the rest of the Hawks' D out of whack. It doesn't seem likely that Allen can go from two-plus weeks down to super sharpshooter just like that.
3. Can the Celtics rebound well enough?
Boston was one of the poorest rebounding teams and by far the least-effective offensive rebounding squad (20.05 percent rate), but that is residue of the way the Celtics play defense. Boston rarely crashes the offensive glass, instead opting to get back, prevent run-outs and defend the half court. The payoff? The Celtics had the NBA's stingiest defense, allowing a league-low 42 percent shooting from the field, and a league-low 30.9 percent mark from 3-point territory. Atlanta scored 76 and 86 points (in overtime) in losing to Boston before scoring 97 in the win when the C's rested all those players. In its 88-86 overtime win in Boston on April 11, the Celtics held Atlanta to two -- yes, two -- points in the bonus period. The Celtics out-rebounded the Hawks 56-39 in that one, by the way, and held Atlanta to 2-for-20 shooting from beyond the arc.
4. Are the Hawks tough enough to match grudges with Garnett, Pierce and friends?
Two-part answer: With Pachulia, who squared off famously with Garnett in the '08 series and needed stitches in his head when these teams met for the first time this season, perhaps. A rap against Atlanta, though, is that the Hawks lack the killer instinct so central to postseason success (other than when they stood up to the Magic last season). Pierce, Garnett and even Rondo will step on your throat to beat you, particularly in a win-or-go-home format. Part II: Can you say the same for Joe Johnson? Josh Smith? One Hawk nobody needs to worry about: Ivan Johnson. If when you see him flash that gold & diamond-laced grill he reminds you of a character from the old TV show, "The Wire," it's because he means business. Always. He was banned for life from a Korean League and racked up technicals in the D-League as if he saw profit in agitation.
5. Does home court matter?
Maybe. In that '08 series, when on paper the Celtics should have completely overwhelmed the 37-45 Hawks, Atlanta absolutely played out of its mind in Philips Arena, and the place was rocking as if fans believed the Hawks had a shot to win it all. They didn't; the Celtics won the NBA title that season, but their series with the Hawks was no less competitive than the Finals matchup with the Lakers.
Atlanta spreads the ball around a little more than when former coach Mike Woodson ran the show and the Hawks ran more isolation with Joe Johnson. Point guard Jeff Teague has developed to where he can often enough break down a defense and throw it into scramble mode. If that happens often enough, Atlanta can wind up with space enough to show how they got to be the fifth-ranked 3-point shooting team in the NBA (36.5 percent). If Rondo and Boston slow Teague, the Hawks could face serious problems. Josh Smith can cause problems with his athleticism, but the only guy capable of sustaining a series-long scoring blitz is Johnson. Guard Willie Green is capable of double-digits off the bench, or go scoreless. He's no Jamal Crawford. Former starting small forward Marvin Williams has been better as a reserve.
Watch Rondo go. He closed the season with 24 straight games of 10 or more assists, and had a league-high six-triple doubles despite missing 13 games. Boston is rarely going to dazzle offensively, at least over long periods of time, but Pierce can still get it done and if Allen is healthy enough to resemble the future Hall of Famer that we're accustomed to seeing, their offense is efficient enough when coupled with their defense to win more often than not. Allen will come off the bench, as he did prior to his latest sabbatical, and rookie Stiemsma is capable of leading all centers in this series in points and rebounds if his feet let him play.
Boston will generally let Rondo go, and if he can't get to the rim Pierce is most often the chief option. If Allen's on, though, he and Garnett can all beat you. Johnson has, by far, taken most of Atlanta's critical shots this season. He's hit a bunch, too, especially since he returned from knee tendinitis that shelved him before the All-Star game, during it, and for a brief spell afterward.
There are a few doozies here beyond the presence of Pachulia. Boston forward Brandon Bass has been better than many predicted in the starting lineup, and since Avery Bradley, 21, replaced Allen at shooting guard, he's stunned some observers. He scored a career-high 28 points in the loss in Atlanta (playing point in Rondo's absence).This prompted Josh Smith to say, "I didn't know he had that much game." Allen and his health, though, may be the ultimate wild card for the Celtics. For the Hawks, Green has erupted a few times off the bench, and Josh Smith has had his best season. He should have been an All-Star. With Smith, though, there remains the risk that he's going to suddenly start channeling Dirk Nowitzki and start jacking up long jumpers. That could be disaster for Atlanta, or, if he happens to drain a bunch of them, screw up the fundamentals of the Boston defense.
Atlanta appears a little deeper than Boston, especially since Allen, Stiemsma, Pietrus are not pictures of health off the Celtics' bench. But depth frequently is a little less impactful in the postseason, Boston is tougher, more seasoned, and built better to play a playoff brand of basketball. The Hawks, though, played for the home-court edge and they seem to have more edge to them than in recent seasons. Hawks in 7
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