The Boston Celtics and the Atlanta Hawks will begin their playoff runs tonight as the two face off in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. EST at Philips Arena in Atlanta, Georgia. Boston enters the game as the 4-seed in the Eastern Conference, while Atlanta enters as the 5-seed. The Celtics finished the year with a 39-27 record, and the Hawks wrapped up the season with a 40-26 record. Head coach Larry Drew and the Hawks earned home-court advantage in the series with a 106-89 victory over the defending champion Dallas Mavericks on Thursday night.
Boston hopes that its hot streak will continue into the playoffs and carry them through the first round. Since February 28th the Celtics are 24-10, including 7-3 over its last ten games. This could quite possibly be the last playoff pus for the aging “Big Three.” Celtics captain Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Ray Allen are getting older by the day, and it seems as if General Manager Danny Ainge will attempt to make some moves this off-season that could split up the “Big Three.” Head coach Doc Rivers rested his star players, including point guard Rajon Rondo, down the stretch to ensure they were physically prepared to make a run in the playoffs. Hall of Famer Ray Allen has not played since injuring his right ankle nearly two weeks ago. Rivers said that Allen has a 50-50 chance of playing in Game 1 of the series tonight, and will be a game-time decision. Not good news for Allen, or Boston. Avery Bradley has stepped up big for the Celtics in Allen’s absence. The young guard has averaged 15 points per game over the final 19 games of the season, a huge bonus for the aging Celtics.
Atlanta finished with a 20-11 record over the final two months of the season. Starting center Al Horford has played in only 11 games this season, after suffering a chest injury back on January 11th in a 96-84 loss to the Indiana Pacers. Horford has been ruled out for Game 1 of the series, but not the whole series. The Hawks plan to evaluate his status day by day to see if he can suit up. Joe Johnson and Josh Smith led the Hawks in scoring this season, both averaging 18.8 points per game.
Boston won the regular season series against Atlanta, 2-1. Each game in the season series came down to the final minutes, and saw no team run away with a clear victory. The first time the two met, back on March 19th, Boston came away with a 79-76 win. The Celtics came away victorious again in the second meeting on April 11th, downing the Hawks 88-86 in overtime. Atlanta took the final game of the regular season series just nine days later, 97-92.
This playoff series will see much of the same. Expect the Celtics and Hawks to battle it out until the final buzzer in six games. Boston will advance to the second round of the playoffs with a 4-2 series victory. The Celtics are shooting lights out since the All-Star break. I expect Ray Allen to sit the first game of the series and play minimal time in game two, with gradual increases in playing time the remainder of the series. However, I don’t believe that he will be a factor at all because Atlanta knows he is coming off of an ankle injury and will zero in on him. I believe Bradley will show up in the series and play a huge factor, along with the likes of Rondo and Garnett. If Atlanta wants to take this series away from Boston, Johnson, Smith and Jeff Teague will all need to play superb. I look for the Celtics to split the first two games in Atlanta, and take both games in Boston to grab a 3-1 series lead heading back to Atlanta. Atlanta and Boston have two of the best home records in the Eastern Conference, so it would not surprise me to see the Celtics lose game five in Atlanta and come home to wrap up the series in Boston in game six.
This series will certainly be an interesting one to watch. Stay tuned.
Here is my fearless prediction for the series:
Game 1: Boston (4) vs. Atlanta (5) – 86-80, Boston
Game 2: Boston (4) vs. Atlanta (5) – 93-88, Atlanta
Game 3: Atlanta (5) vs. Boston (4) – 101-91, Boston
Game 4: Atlanta (5) vs. Boston (4) – 98-96, Boston
Game 5: Boston (4) vs. Atlanta (5) – 103-95, Atlanta
Game 6: Atlanta (5) vs. Boston (4) – 96-91, Boston