In 2008, the top-seeded Celtics – boasting a new Big Three of Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett and a 66-16 record -- were taken to seven games by the up-and-coming yet underwhelming Hawks, who won 37 games and lost 45 that season. The Big Three are still here, although Rajon Rondo is now firmly a member of the exclusive core. Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Al Horford, Zaza Pachulia and Marvin Williams are still Hawks, only older and more experienced.
With so many familiar players from that series, it’s tempting to draw parallels. It’s also futile. So much has happened between then and now that any comparison between the two series is a hopeless exercise. With 73 postseason games under his belt, Rondo no longer is a playoff novice, and Mike Bibby is on his last legs in New York, replaced by Jeff Teague. Key role players have come and gone. Coaches, too.
“This Atlanta team is a very exciting team. Athletic. A better team since we played them,” Garnett said. “More mature team.”
Then there are the injuries. Allen has bone spurs in his ankle and a new role coming off the bench with only four games to adjust. Horford has been out since mid-January after surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle, and while his status seems to shift by the day, he hasn’t played in over three months and it’s looking more likely he will miss the first round entirely.
Pachulia has a strained foot ligament and isn’t expected for the first few games, at least. Mickael Pietrus has been out with swelling in his knee and is only a few games removed from a severe concussion.
The Celtics answered some of their injury questions in their regular-season finale against the Bucks. Rondo played 25 minutes and handed out 15 assists. Pietrus played almost 20 and looked good. Garnett was also back and coach Doc Rivers thinks the rest was good for him, even if it ultimately cost the team homecourt advantage.
“It would have been easier to open up at home, but we’re just not. We had to make tough choices,” Rivers said. “Looking at Kevin, the way he ran [on Thursday], I was happy with the choice. It looked like his legs were back. To me, that answered the question. We’ve earned the road because of our record. You can look at games. We lost two in Toronto. We lost a lot of games early in the year. That’s the reason we’re on the road.”
This series needs to be seen for what it is today, a contest between two defensive-minded teams that live and die with jump shots. The Hawks enjoyed the more consistent season, while the Celtics are streaking into the postseason backed by a 24-10 record since the All-Star break. They are in far different places than they were in 2008, and this series is loaded with interesting matchups.
THE JOE JOHNSON PROBLEM
Since he left Boston halfway through his rookie season, Joe Johnson has been a remarkably durable and consistent player. A six-time All-Star, Johnson still rarely gets the respect his career deserves. He has the Celtics’ attention, however, and where he plays and who guards him will be one of the keys to the series.
The Celtics' revival may have started when Garnett moved to center, but their resurgence coincided with Avery Bradley’s move into the starting lineup. With Bradley playing off the ball, they went 12-4 down the stretch with impressive wins against the Heat (twice), Pacers, Magic and Hawks.
Bradley has defended both backcourt positions, but the 6-foot-8 Johnson presents a problem. In their game at the Garden in April, the Hawks started Jeff Teague and Kirk Hinrich, which allowed Bradley to defend Teague with Rondo taking Hinrich and Pierce guarding Johnson. However, if the Hawks play Johnson in the backcourt with Williams on the other wing, it forces Bradley into a tougher matchup.
That’s where Pietrus becomes a tremendously important player in this series. The Celtics need his length and versatility to guard Johnson and create favorable matchups in other areas.
SPEED VS. SPEED
Rondo believes there is no one faster -- just ask him -- but Teague may have a case. More importantly, the 23-year-old has emerged as a legitimate starting point guard in his third season.
“Teague has improved tremendously,” Hawks coach Larry Drew said when his team visited the Garden in April. “His confidence level has gotten to a point to where we are very ecstatic as to where he is. Skill level, he has speed, he has quickness. When he’s playing with an attack mentality he makes us a different ballclub.
“Defensively he has the speed and quickness to keep people in front of him. He can pick up 94 feet. A lot of people forget that he’s still a young pup, but we’re trying to bring him along the best we can, and he’s done a phenomenal job for us.”
It’s that last part that concerns the Celtics. When Rondo left the game, Teague and Hinrich pounced on Bradley, forcing Allen to bring the ball up the court.
“Atlanta does a good job,” Rivers said at the time. “They pressure our guards when Rondo’s off the floor. That’s something we’re going to have to fix when teams do that.”
Again, this makes creating favorable matchups for Bradley a must.
THE FRONTCOURT SHUFFLE
With Horford out, Josh Smith becomes the Hawks' most important offensive player. Prone to taking ill-advised long jump shots, Smith still averaged a career-high 18.7 points, and he’s also an excellent defensive player. The Celtics would love to have Garnett -- their best defender -- check Smith.
That leaves Brandon Bass on the other frontcourt player. If Pachulia can’t play, the Hawks can use veteran strongman Jason Collins in his place, or they could go small with Williams or Vladimir Radmanovic next to Smith. The Celtics could counter with a smaller lineup featuring Pierce and Pietrus at forward. While Rivers isn’t a fan of that alignment, it may come in handy against Atlanta.
"We still really can’t go small," he said. "You can do with MP and Paul. That’s real small, but we can do that. That gives us some luxury, the fact that MP can stretch the floor. Avery can guard two positions. We do have a lot of players that can play different spots."
Another player who could be affected by lineups is Greg Stiemsma. If the Hawks go small, will Stiemsma have a role? The 26-year-old undrafted rookie has had a remarkable rise in the second half of the season, and the Hawks have their own undrafted revelation in Ivan Johnson, a 28-year-old banger who brings toughness and rebounding.
WATCH THAT LINE
If there’s one stat to track in this series it’s the Hawks’ 3-point shooting. Atlanta was fifth in the NBA in 3-point shooting, making over 37 percent. That was a big reason why they were able to muster a league-average offense in terms of points per possession. Like the Celtics, the Hawks don’t do much damage on the offensive glass and they get to the free throw line at a lower rate.
No team defended the arc better than Boston this season, allowing just over 30 percent accuracy. The Hawks have eight players who took more than 100 3-pointers this season and five who shot better than 37 percent.
Johnson is the primary threat, but Williams, Pargo and Radmanovic are all excellent shooters, while Willie Green knocked down better than 43 percent of his attempts this season.
Prediction: This series doesn’t figure to be easy for the Celtics, especially without home court. They’ll need to get at least one and maybe two games in Atlanta. The injury factor also looms large. Allen is a huge question mark for the Celtics, while the prognosis for Horford and Pachulia doesn’t look good.
In the end, the Celtics will have enough to get through this round before facing a huge test with the Bulls in the second.
The call is Celtics in six games, and it will be a tough six.