It's a quick turnaround for the Celtics, who broke their losing streak against the feisty Indiana Pacers at TD Garden on Friday night. Their battle does not get any easier, as the Hawks are just as talented as Indiana, if not moreso. The team has been hot as of late, and has played some excellent basketball despite losing top scorer Joe Johnson via an offseason trade with the Brooklyn Nets.
This does not bode well for the Boston Celtics, who have looked old and lethargic on the court recently. Rather than try and break out of their slump and finish the season on a high note, they seem resigned to the fact they are old and unable to keep up with faster, younger and less experienced teams.
A win against red-hot Atlanta would thus be all the more sweet for Boston. The Celtics have gone 5-11 on the road, but won the season series against Atlanta last season, two to one.
Boston also defeated Atlanta in the first round of last year's playoffs, winning in six games. This season, the Celtics seem like anything but a playoff squad. Just the same, history does count for something.
They may be underdogs on paper, but victory in Atlanta is closer than Boston fans may think.
Time: Saturday, January 5th, 7:00 p.m. EST
TV: CSN HD, SportSouth
Records: Boston Celtics (15-17) vs Atlanta Hawks (20-11)
Betting Line: Boston (+5), Atlanta (-5) - (h/t Oddsshark.com)
Injuries: Devin Harris (foot, day-to-day), Anthony Morrow (hip, day-to-day), Johan Petro (illness, day-to-day), Al Horford (hip, day-to-day), DeShawn Stevenson (personal, day-to-day), Chris Wilcox (thumb, out), Kris Joseph (ankle, day-to-day), Fab Melo (concussion, day-to-day) - (h/t Rotoworld.com)
Key Storyline: Will Last Season's Success Against Atlanta Carry Over for Boston?
As bad as the Celtics have looked this season, they are not necessarily sunk against the Hawks. They won the season series last year by a score of two games to one, but not without a great effort. Both of Boston's wins were only by a combined five points, so the Hawks are definitely going to bring their best game with them tonight.
Even without Joe Johnson scoring points, the Hawks have played some incredible basketball. Some may argue that the team is even better without him. Josh Smith and Al Horford have emerged as excellent go-to guys in head coach Larry Drew's system, and point man Jeff Teague has proven to be dynamic as well.
Currently, Atlanta ranks seventh in points allowed and second in assists, the definition of team chemistry.
Boston is a mess now, but needs to at least try and keep the game close in Atlanta. This means Kevin Garnett must use his superior experience to try and make Al Horford work the low post and force his shots. In the backcourt, Rajon Rondo cannot take any possessions off.
It's a tough task, but the Celtics certainly have what it takes to defeat the Hawks. It's just a matter of proper execution, which will make for an excellent battle on the hardwood.
Key Matchup: Rajon Rondo vs. Jeff Teague
The key to slowing down the Hawks is slowing down the quarterback of their offense, in this case Jeff Teague. Over the past couple of seasons, Teague has blossomed into a point guard who can simply do it all. He can score, pass, play defense and he is just an incredible athlete despite being on the smaller side at 6'2", 181 pounds.
On the season, Teague is averaging 13.2 points, 6.7 assists and 1.6 steals per game. He has also shot 38 percent from long range.
Though talented, he's going to be in for the battle of his life against Rajon Rondo, one of the best pests in the league.
Most of us know Rondo as one of the league's best facilitators, as he currently leads the NBA in passing with 11.6 assists per game, but his defense is not to be overlooked. His 1.9 steals per contest rank fifth in the league, and he plays with the tenacity of someone much larger than 6'1", 186 pounds.
Teague is not as strong an athlete as Rondo, though he may come close, which means that he needs to fight tooth and nail to defeat the former Kentucky Wildcat. He has a rowdy Atlanta crowd backing him, so he must drive the lane hard and be willing to draw a foul, which he does not do often.
Similarly, Rondo must not be afraid to use his experience advantage against Teague. He knows how to get past defenses and has improved his offense enough this year that he could try and create off the dribble.
The battle between these two could also likely go to a stalemate, which makes one man coming out on top all the more important. Whoever wins at the point wins the game, and not without maximum effort.
X-Factor: Jeff Green
Boston needs a spark in order to win this game, and Jeff Green has excelled in that role this season. The former Georgetown Hoya has only averaged 9.8 points and 3.2 boards on the year, but has played better as of late.
Through his last five games, Green has posted 11 points and 3.8 rebounds, though he has shot a below-average 38 percent from the field. Just the same, he has had some good performances throughout the season.
Against the Philadelphia 76ers on December 7, Green scored 19 points. When given the proper playing time and if in a groove, he can do it all. He scores, rebounds, plays good defense and dunks like no other.
He must do that and then some against a feisty Atlanta defense. The Hawks are going to make this game all about who guards the basket better, and Green must use his athleticism to put the Hawks' D to shame.
If he can be effective and provide just a little bit of extra offense, then the Celtics definitely have a remote shot at winning the game, and walking away with a sweet road victory.
In this game, the Boston Celtics will play some of their best basketball in a long time. The score will be close from start to finish, and the final nail in the coffin won't be driven in until the last few minutes of the fourth quarter.
Unfortunately, that coffin belongs to the Celtics.
Atlanta's defense will fight and claw its way to victory, and a crucial jumper from Josh Smith will seal the deal for the Hawks. He and Al Horford will fight to near-stalemates in the paint, as Kevin Garnett, Jason Collins and even Jared Sullinger will make life difficult under the basket.
Rajon Rondo and Jeff Teague will go toe-to-toe and battle to a tie, leaving Paul Pierce as Boston's playmaker for the day. He and Jason Terry will have good shooting nights, with Pierce showing shades of his former self on defense.
It's sadly not going to be enough for Boston, though they will have turned a corner following tonight. Grand improvement may not happen immediately, but significant strides will be made in the near future.
No matter how you look at it, even a loss in Atlanta can sometimes be a sign of better things to come.
Atlanta Hawks 94, Boston Celtics 91