Celtics-Hawks Preview

1190922388It’s April, the sun is shining, and for the first time in what seems like eons, real playoff basketball is back in Boston. Before we get into the first round matchup with the Hawks, a little public-service announcement: We’ll be at the Garden for the duration of the playoffs, so check back often for updates.

We were on hand for the regular-season finale last night, and in his pre-game gathering with the press, Doc Rivers mentioned that he and his staff had been preparing to play Atlanta for the last few weeks. He also said he hoped for Game 1 to be on Sunday. He got his wish on both counts, with the opener set for 8:30 p.m.

Atlanta, the only playoff team not not crack the 40-win mark, is obviously a heavy underdog. But the matchup is not without intrigue.

Despite the 29-game difference in the standings, no one around the Celtics is taking Atlanta lightly. Doc made the point last night that athletic teams have given the C’s problems (i.e. Washington). If nothing else, the Hawks are certainly athletic — and unpredictable. Witness the end of their season, which ended on a three-game losing skid, but preceded an 11-4 stretch when they made their playoff push.

From Doc’s perspective, that makes them something of a dangerous enigma, and they are not without some experience. Right before the trading deadline, the Hawks finally made a move for a point guard, nabbing veteran Mike Bibby from the Kings. While most pundits are calling for the Celtics to win the series in four or five games, here are three things you should remember about the Hawks:

1. Joe Johnson is legit

Bibby’s acquisition may have helped give Atlanta direction, but make no mistake, the Hawks take their lead from the one-time Celtic, who has very quietly become one of the NBA’s more versatile players (averaging 22 points, 4.5 assists, and 6 rebounds a game). Most league observers scoffed when the Hawks dealt Boris Diaw and two No. 1 draft picks to the Suns for Johnson, and they scoffed even louder when they then signed him to a $70 million deal over five years. But in hindsight, it was at least a solid move.

Diaw has never really developed for Phoenix, and the Hawks were able to keep the Suns away from their lottery-protected picks. Incidentally, one of those picks became Rajon Rondo, whom the Suns traded to Boston. Johnson does just about everything for Atlanta, and it will be interesting to see how the C’s attack him defensively.

2. Underdogs? Us?

With youth comes bravado, and the Hawks have a certain callow machismo about them, as evidenced by several comments to the Atlanta Journal where they jabbered about “shocking the world.” (OK, but what else would they say?) And the final regular season game between the two teams had a definite edge to it. Meanwhile, Atlanta has a number of up-and-comers (Josh Smith, Marvin Williams, Al Horford, and Josh Childress) who would like to make a name for themselves in their first playoff exposure.

3. Putting the fun back in dysfunction

If the woebegone Clippers have an Eastern Conference doppelganger, it’s the Hawks. The GM, Billy Knight, reportedly tried to fire Coach Mike Woodson during the season, but was blocked by ownership. Speaking of ownership, the various factions fighting for control of the team, including our own Steve Belkin, have sued and counter-sued each other for the last four years, and nearly severed ties completely after the Johnson signing.

Childress is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, while Smith will be a highly-coveted restricted free agent after the season. Either Knight or Woodson, or both, will likely be gone at the end of the year, and the ownership issues have placed burdens on signing anyone to long-term deals.

Nobody seriously expects the Hawks to pose much of a threat, but their athleticism, and their unpredictably, are enough to keep Doc up at night. We’re going to go ahead and predict a sweep, but there might be some drama in an otherwise blah Eastern Conference first round.