This is probably going to be our last look at Boston’s Big Three — unless, of course, they win the championship and Wyc Grousbeck is forced to pony up a fortune in luxury taxes to keep the team together for one more year. Oh, and he needs to find a center, too. The Hawks get no respect, but that is to be expected when they come up with their annual spring flameout. Judging from the predictions below, a majority still feels they are headed for yet another one. Here are five things to watch for in the first-round playoff series between the Atlanta Hawks and the Boston Celtics:
- THE DISRESPECT FACTOR: It was only a week ago that Doc Rivers showed what he thought of the Hawks by giving Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett the night off and leaving Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen and Mickael Pietrus behind in Boston to have their injuries treated. Rivers did that despite it being an important game, as homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs was at stake. The Celtics still managed to lose by just 5 points despite using a starting lineup of Greg Stiesma, Brandon Bass, Sasha Pavlovic, Avery Bradley and Keyon Dooling, but the disrespect of blowing off a game — basically saying it wouldn’t matter where a Game 7 was played — will be a motivating factor for the Hawks.
- THE AL HORFORD FACTOR: Atlanta’s center has been sidelined since Jan. 9 with a torn pectoral muscle, but he has been practicing with the team, and he said he expected to be able to give the team 15 minutes per night in the first round — but then backed off that comment. Someone’s playing possum, perhaps? This is no small issue, as it would give the Hawks another formidable low-post scoring option and a capable rebounder. And this could be a series that is won on the boards, what with the Celtics ranking 30th (deal last) in the league in that category. With Zaza Pachulia, Josh Smith, Marvin Williams and Ivan Johnson, there is a massive size advantage for the Hawks.
- THE OVER THE HILL FACTOR: Boston’s championship contending window is closing. That has been clear all season, and that is why Danny Ainge was ready to trade Ray Allen to Memphis and Paul Pierce to New Jersey at the trade deadline in order to speed up the rebuilding process. Allen is almost 37 and has lost his starting job to Avery Bradley. Garnett turns 36 in May and will be a free agent this summer. Pierce is 34 (although I’d still take him second, behind Kobe Bryant, as the guy I want taking my last shot).
- THE BACKCOURT FACTOR: Here is where the Celtics have a major edge. Rajon Rondo is 10 times the player that Jeff Teague is, Avery Bradley is a strong defender who can slide over and spell Pierce in giving Joe Johnson fits (especially if Johnson tries to do too much against a perceived nobody), and Ray Allen as a sixth man is something we’ll have to wait and see on. Allen certainly tailed of as the season progressed. In early February, he was shooting 56 percent from behind the arc. He has been below 40 percent since.
- THE COACHING FACTOR: Larry Drew has a career playoff coaching record of 6-6, and he did get the Hawks past the Orlando Magic last season. But Doc Rivers has 95 playoff games under his belt, 83 of them over the past four seasons with the Celtics. He exudes confidence, and he has a squad of some of the most intense human beings ever to lace up a pair of kicks. If Drew has some motivational magic, he’d better unbottle it so that his team can match the energy, focus and experience they are about to encounter.
SHERIDAN: Hawks in 7.
HUBBARD: Celtics in 7.
HEISLER: Celtics in 6.
BERNUCCA: Celtics in 6.
HAMILTON: Celtics in 7.
PERKINS: Celtics in 6.
ZAGORIA: Celtics in 5.
PARK: Celtics in 6.
For the complete first-round NBA playoff schedule, click here.
OTHER SERIES PREVIEWS AND PREDICTIONS