The Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics will meet once again in the postseason as they begin their 2012 NBA Playoffs first-round series at Philips Arena on Sunday. These two teams aren't strangers when it comes to meetings in the playoffs having had two memorable matchups in both 1988 and 2008. The Celtics won both of those series and the Hawks hope this time around that things will be different.
In 1988 it was Larry Bird's Celtics that would defeat Dominique Wilkins in a memorable Game 7 duel between the two star players to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. In 2008, the Hawks limped into the playoffs for the first time in a decade and pushed the eventual NBA champs to seven games in the opening round. That Hawks team wasn't ready but the playoff experience they gained would be valuable and they haven't missed the postseason since.
Many wrote this Atlanta Hawks team off before the season even began. Al Horford's season ending injury eleven games in just gave the detractors more ammunition. Larry Drew and company persevered to finish with a 40-26 record in the lockout shortened season capturing home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs along the way. Josh Smith took his game to another level and Joe Johnson bounced back from an injury plagued season a year ago. A rebuilt bench and solid performances from Jeff Teauge and Zaza Pachulia helped Atlanta overcome the loss of Horford and remain a factor in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
The lockout shortened schedule wreaked havoc on the Celtics early but they hit their stride during the second half and overtook the Philadelphia 76ers to claim another Atlantic Division title. A trademark of the Big 3 era has been a smothering team defense and the Celtics put that on full display down the stretch.
Boston took two of the three meetings with Atlanta during the regular season and nearly pulled off a sweep as an undermanned Celtics' team put up a good fight in the final meeting at Philips Arena. In both losses Atlanta led late but couldn't sustain them. The Hawks were victimized by big runs by Boston which were usually fueled by Atlanta turnovers and a lack of execution offensively.
Boston was the worst rebounding team in the league this season in terms of total boards but held their own with Atlanta in each of the three matchups. That will be a key area for the Hawks as a team effort on the boards will be needed especially with Zaza Pachulia's status for Game 1 and the series up in the air because of a foot injury.
In both losses to the Celtics this season the Hawks essentially wilted at crunchtime. The excellent ball movement they enjoyed throughout the game disappeared as they broke things off into a series of isolations down the stretch. Its no secret that Atlanta wants to put the basketball in Joe Johnson's hands with the game on the line. The challenge for Larry Drew is to put Johnson in position to make plays for his teammates and to be a little less predictable when those situations occur. The challenge for Johnson is to make the correct play when that situation arrives.
Jeff Teague bust onto the scene in the second round of last year's playoffs against Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls. The Hawks need Teague to be aggressive against the Celtics the same way he was against the Bulls.Atlanta can't afford him to be passive and he must be willing to take the shot when called upon. The Hawks should look for transition opportunities whenever they are available to prevent the Celtics from having the time to set their defense and a lot of that falls square on the shoulders of Teague.
Josh Smith has answered the call all season for Atlanta elevating his play in the absence of Al Horford. He is likely to start at center for the Hawks if Pachulia is unable to go and will spend most of the series matched with Kevin Garnett. Smith will have the advantage in quickness and athleticism over Garnett and it is very important that he lead the way on the boards.
Both teams enter the series with injury concerns to key players. Zaza Pachulia didn't practice on Saturday and is a game-time decision for Sunday's Game 1 with a foot injury that kept him out of the final seven games of the regular season. The feeling is that he will likely not play before Game 2 on Tuesday. Ray Allen traveled to Atlanta but is also unlikely to play in Game 1 because of an ankle injury.
For Atlanta this series is more about showing poise and a toughness that they have never been able to sustain against the Celtics. Its not playing solid for three quarters only to succumb to old habits in the fourth. There is no easy way out against a team like Boston. In 1988 it was Larry Bird who had every answer to Dominique Wilkins' scoring assault. In 2008, the Hawks were much too young to understand what it took to win tough playoff games, particularly those on the road. Its now time for them to prove that they are ready for the Celtics' test.
Not surprisingly the same people that wrote the Hawks off before the season certainly aren't giving them a chance now. Therefore the Hawks shouldn't feel any pressure when the series begins on Sunday. Doc Rivers really wasn't concerned with capturing homecourt advantage down the stretch instead opting to rest key players in the final games. The Big 3 era started with a series victory over the Atlanta Hawks. How fitting would it be for the Big 3 era to come to an end at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks?