Quiet and Confident By Jon Cooper
To hear some talk about it prior to the start of the series, the Atlanta Hawks-Boston Celtics first-round match-up was a mere formality.
It was a four-game exercise for the Atlantic Division champion Celtics to sharpen their skills for an Eastern Conference Semifinal showdown with Eastern Conference champion Chicago.
The Hawks didn’t say much — and likely won’t — but have already shot down the four-game portion of that prediction. Not surprisingly, they aren’t going to roll over.
You’d think by now that prognosticators might reconsider predictions of sweeps when Atlanta and Boston meet in the first round. They tried it in 2008 and that series went the distance, with the home team winning each game.
The Hawks remember and are determined to prove that a lot can and has changed in that time.
"Everybody said we were going to get swept so we were just able to come in and play relaxed and ended up winning our home games," said guard Joe Johnson. "This year, it's a big difference. Now we're in the driver's seat. It's up to us to keep home court."
"I think the biggest thing was that was a lot of our first times ever being to the Playoffs," added forward Marvin Williams. "So what better team to learn from than the World Champs? We've been to the playoffs each year since then and I feel like we've gotten better so it's going to be fun to face them this time around."
Game One sure was fun, as the Hawks used an explosive 31-point first quarter, a huge game from Josh Smith (22 points and 18 rebounds), late clutch shooting from Jeff Teague late and a last-minute meltdown by Boston guard Rajon Rondo to take an 83-74 decision and a 1-0 series lead. Atlanta led wire-to-wire and held leads of 14 at the half and by double-digits most of the game.
Playing, without bigs Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia — you know how he loves the playoffs and especially playing against Boston — the Hawks won the battle on the boards (50-41, 11-7 on the offensive end). Ivan Johnson was his usual energetic force off the bench and Jason Collins gave some valuable minutes.
That the Celtics didn't give in and got to within two possessions on a couple of occasions in the fourth was expected. The Hawks are expecting that kind of resolve and run-making throughout the series. They also know they're not going to see another 5-for-19 shooting day (0-for-6 from three) from Pierce and an 0-for-11 shooting night from three by Boston.
"This game is about runs," said Johnson. "They're going to make runs, we're going to make runs but it's about who has the most poise to really close out games or to withstand runs and counter runs.
"We have to out-work them, outrun them," he added. "We really have to be aggressive this series in getting up and down the floor."
The Hawks know they can hang with the Celtics. They actually won more games during the season — the reason this series is starting at Philips Arena and not TD Garden— and, while Boston took the season series, 2-1, the Hawks' two losses were by a total of five points.
Celtics mystique won't be the factor as it was in 2008, although there is still warranted respect for the franchise's past and future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett, who had a 20-point 12-rebound, three-assist opener, Pierce, and Ray Allen, should he be able to overcome an ankle injury that kept him out of Game One.
“They know how to win," said Williams. "They're not going to do too much to beat themselves. You have to go beat them. I think we have the ability to do it but we have to go out there and show it.”
“They've been there before," he added. "Those guys have been around the League a long time and have been very successful. They've won a championship before so they're never rattled. They're always poised. They know what it takes."
Johnson, who had only 11 points, and shot an uncharacteristic 3-for-15 (0-for-9 from three) agreed.
"It's going to be a tough series and even though we're down a few bigs, us as guards and forwards, our play has to get a little nasty,” he said. “We're to the point now where we've been to the playoffs a few years and I think everybody wants to advance to make it to the next round. We know to do that we have to go through the Boston Celtics and it's not going to be easy."
While only one game has been played, the Hawks showed cracks in the Celtics armor. They showed they could play an up-tempo game and control the boards — the Hawks held a 13-9 edge in rebounding in the first quarter and a 7-4 edge in fast break points and shot 54.5 percent to Boston’s 40.9. Atlanta also got a pair of huge field goals from Jeff Teague, which may earn him a little more respect than he was shown.
The Hawks even showed greater poise than the Celtics, as they never let Boston shoot for the tie despite repeated charges.
In the end, it was Boston that lost its cool, as Rondo got a pair of ill-advised technical fouls with the game 78-74 and 41 seconds to go, basically putting the game on ice. For his behavior, which included bumping referee Marc Davis, Rondo will be on ice for Game Two.
There's still way too much basketball to be played in this series to say any statements have been made but the Hawks have the Celtics’ attention and the knowledge that they need to bring their 'A' game.
They may even have gotten the attention of some of the experts out there, not that THAT matters.
We're always under the radar and we don't mind that," said Johnson. "As long as guys in that locker room believe we can win and advance that's all that matters. It doesn't matter to us whether somebody picks us to win a series or picks us to lose. At the end of the day the game is played out there on the court. We know that. So we've got to go out and prove ourselves."