Vivlamore reporting from Boston where the Hawks play the Celtics tonight at 8 p.m.
BOSTON – The Hawks did what they were supposed to do the past three games as they disposed of the sub-.500 Bobcats (twice) and Pistons.
Now, they face to biggest challenge of the season to this point in the Celtics.
In what would be a first-round playoff matchup if the postseason started today, the Hawks can accomplish two very important things tonight against the Celtics.
1. Prove they can beat the Celtics – one of the better teams in the NBA now that they are getting healthy.
2. Help their playoff position with nine regular-season games remaining – as they would rather open against either the Magic or the Pacers.
Regarding the first point, the Celtics defeated the Hawks 79-76 at Philips Arena earlier this season, albeit the Hawks had injuries and were playing their third game in four nights.
This is a Hawks team capable of beating the Bulls, Heat and Thunder. However, they’ve also lost against the likes of playoff contenders like the Knicks, 76ers and Bucks.
The Hawks end the regular season at home against the Celtics. Evening the season series at 1-1 could be that game has big tiebreaker implications.
Few teams are hotter than the Celtics right now. They are 18-7 since the All-Star break. That includes three straight wins, most recently last night’s win against the Heat, and 8-2 in the past 10. The Celtics are also 11-1 this season against the Southeast Division.
“They are a veteran ball club, they have been in those trenches long enough they know how to win,” Hawks coach Larry Drew said Tuesday. “We have to play with the consistency we’ve been seeking all year. It’s going to be playoff energy, playoff intensity. We are going to have to bring our A game. It will be a big challenge for us.”
Regarding the second point, the Hawks (34-23) are fifth in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics (33-24) are fourth by virtue of leading the Atlantic division. The Hawks are one game behind the Pacers, who play at the Cavaliers tonight. They are also just a half-game ahead of the Magic, who they play Friday in Orlando.
The game with the Celtics may well come down to experience vs. youth. The Celtics feature three future Hall of Famers, and maybe a fourth. Ray Allen is 24th in scoring in NBA history with 22,941 points – 108 points behind Elgin Baylor. Paul Pierce is 25th with 22,450 points. Kevin Garnett is rising up the scoring and rebounding charts. Point guard Rajon Rondo has 18 straight games with at least 10 assists. It’s the longest streak in the NBA since John Stockton had 29 straight in 1992.
The Hawks counter with their relatively young core group.
“We are a younger team,” Marvin Williams said. “Our youth has always helped us against the Celtics. Their experience has really helped them against us. Every time we play those guys it’s a good game.”
Who could forget the seven-game series in 2008?
Finally, the Hawks are expected to get forward Vladimir Radmanovic back tonight, assuming his back responded well to Tuesday’s practice. He has missed the past eight games, and 12 of the past 13, with the back issue. With Radmanovic back, the Hawks would have their entire lineup – excluding Al Horford of course.
So, what Hawks team shows up tonight?