The Atlanta Hawks, seemingly unable to help themselves just now, are getting help. No, not a free agent player come to rescue them. Not a hypnotist to get them to focus on one thing (defense would be my choice). Not anything like that.
They’re getting help from an old enemy: the Boston Celtics. Say WHAT? Yes, those guys.
After wrestling away the #3 spot in the Eastern Conference, the Celtics have lost two straight to teams that are not far north of a .500 record. In doing so, the Hawks and Celtics are tied with 40-23 records. Oh, Boston doesn’t mean to help. Not anymore than the Pacers meant to help us into the 8th seed (and subsequently, the playoffs) in 2007-2008. Appearing to have the driver’s seat locked up, the Pacers managed to lose more games than the Hawks did down the final stretch of the season, and eventually lost the playoff battle as well.
Deja Vu, anyone?
Could the same thing happen this season with the Celtics?
The Celtics are NOT the ‘08 Pacers. They aren’t weak, just damaged. They aren’t half built, just a bit dilapidated. The Pacers were trying to make do with Flip Murray at point guard (never a great option). The Celtics have one of the League’s better point guards in Rajon Rondo, and a nasty surprise off the bench in Nate Robinson. We’ve been burned enough by Nate when he was in New York. Could he do the same damage against us in Boston’s system? Perhaps it’s not the system, it’s how we defend him. Either way, the Celtics were and are a tough enough matchup without a guy like him in the mix. Then again….he’s no Eddie House. Don’t laugh. House is a guy who can’t be left alone anywhere on the perimeter. Nate can’t boast the same. He needs to get to the hole to help get his game going. But if you’ve been hanging around Hawksville for the last few months, you know that keeping penetrating guards under wraps is another problem Atlanta has. The Hawks are much stronger now, than they were in that season, but the Celtics are far, far stronger than Atlanta’s competition then, as well.
There are players on that squad with very strong wills, and very good skills. They have a good coach. Expecting them to falter after getting pounded at home is foolish. Expect them to fight to the finish.
GENTLEMEN, START YOUR ENGINES
As the saying goes, never look a gift horse in the mouth. The Hawks have a second chance now, and a third may not be coming. In fact, it’s folly to lay any expectations on a meltdown of one’s chief competitors. Make no mistake about it. Orlando may be who we chase in the division, but Boston is our truest competitor, and our best chance at . We need that #3 playoff seeding, and Boston needs it just as bad as we do. With both teams now neck-and-neck, the fight is on. Atlanta gets the first try at taking the lead with a game against Washington Thursday night. But there won’t be much breathing room. On Friday, Boston faces Indiana.
The good news is that while Atlanta’s remaining schedule isn’t the easiest, the Celtics’ schedule is just as rough, if not moreso. Of their last 19 or so games, only four are against opponents that are more or less guaranteed not to be playoff bound: Indiana, Washington, Sacramento, New York, and Detroit. The other 15 games are another matter altogether. All of the other teams have very good reasons for beating them. They’ll face the Bucks twice more (a team that beat them a couple nights ago, and is fighting to stay in the playoffs), The Cavaliers twice, the Rockets twice (fighitng for 8th spot, these guys never quit), Bulls (sliding, but still fighting for the 8th seed), Jazz, Mavs, Spurs, Nuggets, and Raptors. So, they have their work cut out for them.
The Hawks have to put the hammer down, starting in Washington Thursday night. Forget Orlando for the moment. Beat the team you’re really racing. That team is the Celtics.
Want more good news? Any tie-breakers with the Celtics are an automatic Hawks win, seeing as how the Hawks swept the season series with the Celtics. But that’s only good news if a tie is all you can manage. Forget the tie. Go for the win.
HAWKS VS. WIZARDS
Who are these guys? Losers of their last four, the Wizards are anything but the team that we’re used to seeing. And it’s not the losing that makes them unrecognizable, it’s the roster. Gone is matchup nightmare Antawn Jamison, who seems capable of doing 25 and 15 against us whenever he chooses. Gone is “tough juice” Caron Butler. What remains is a patchwork quilt of journeymen and youngsters, for the most part. The bench isn’t much to speak of, but the guys occupying it are generally serious about their craft, and can be solid enough if called upon.
Did I mention that we don’t have to worry about Antawn Jamison in a Wiz uniform? While that may be a “quantum of solace”, there’s a minor problem. You see, this kid named Andray Blatche has emerged from the shadow of the bench, and it just so happens that his game is pretty effective. He’s got range on his jumper, and a big body (6′11″, 248). Having come forward as the team’s leading scorer and rebounder for the most part, Blatche’s future looks bright, and he’ll give the Hawks all they can handle. This could be a bit of a matchup problem for Al Horford or Josh Smith if the Hawks don’t figure out how to get Blatche out of his comfort zone.
Al Thornton had fallen on hard times in L.A., but a change of scenery and another shot at a starting job seems to have breathed new life into his game, though inconsistency is still an issue. Of course, like Blatche, playing for somebody other than Mike Dunleavy probably helped a whole heap. Upgrading to Flip Saunders ? So much the better. At any rate, both Thornton and Blatche can prove to be a pain in an opposing team’s hindquarters, but why have a tandem, when you can have a triumvirate?
The third guy who can prove to be trouble is none other than Randy Foye, a combo guard who runs the show in the backcourt, along with Mike Miller. Foye relies on his ability to penetrate nearly at will, given his weak shooting skills, and can be a load to contain if he is allowed to get hot. They key isn’t how often he gets in the lane. It’s how many good looks he can get from the arc. If Foye hits two or three 3-pointers, he usually scores well. In fact, only three times this season has Foye hit two or more 3-pointers and scored less than 14 points. All three times, he played less than 20 minutes.
On The Flip Side
The Wiz give up roughly 101 points per game, so a defensive team they are not. However, that doesn’t mean that Saunders won’t have them scrambling out there. Blatche and McGhee are both long-armed frontcourt players with good height, meaning they can bother shots if they put forth the effort. At the same time, Al Horford and Josh Smith have the speed to blow by their defenders and draw fouls on the way to the rim. If the Hawks want to establish an early lead, going to both would be a good idea. This is also a good opportunity for Marvin Williams to get back on track. Along with the task of corralling Al Thornton, Williams needs to get back to rebounding and being that efficient scorer that hits 3 of 5, 5 of 7, or 6 of 9 shots in a game.
The Hawks have a distinct advantage in the backcourt, provided that Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford are well rested and ready to go to work. There really isn’t a Wizard on the roster than can stop either guy, especially considering Josh Howard is out for the season with an injury. Both these guys and Mike Bibby need to step up their shooting, particularly if the Wizards try a zone defense. They also need to be on the lookout for cuts through the middle by Williams, Smith, and Horford. Oh, and a little pick-and-roll wouldn’t hurt either, would it?
Time for the Hawks to regain their lost focus. They’ll need it in this race.