ESPN's Israel Gutierrez notes that the Eastern Conference playoff picture isn't as clear as it might have looked earlier in the season, when Chicago and Miami were breezing toward the finish line. Here's his take on the first-round matchup between the Boston Celtics and the Atlanta Hawks:
Last year was allegedly Boston's last gasp at getting its core another NBA Finals appearance. Five games into the second round, that opportunity was supposedly destroyed.
Somehow, the Celtics get one more chance at this. Maybe even a better chance.
Danny Ainge looks like a genius by holding off on trades that would've sent Ray Allen and Paul Pierce elsewhere.
For the month after the trade deadline, Rajon Rondo & Co. rewarded Ainge by going 13-6 and reminding the rest of the NBA they're not dead yet. And the playoffs play into the Celtics' hands even more, with the additional rest involved.
But on the other side of the court will be a team looking just to get a taste of Celtics-like success. The Hawks have found a way to surprise in the playoffs ever since they took the eventual champion Celtics to seven games in 2008.
Now the Hawks are an afterthought again, in part because stabilizing big man Al Horford has been out, and will be out for this first-round series.
But the Hawks match up well against the Celtics. And in a sense, this is their revenge series.
It might've been four years since Boston took out the Hawks in seven, but beating the Celtics and officially (at least we think it would be official this time) extinguishing the Big Three (plus Rondo) era in Boston would feel like a major accomplishment.
How it'll be decided
Normally, the absence of Horford and the uncertain status of center Zaza Pachulia would be considered huge detriments for the Hawks.
But against this version of the Celtics, who start Kevin Garnett at center and bring rookie Greg Stiemsma off the bench, that might not be a problem at all.
Garnett and Josh Smith are still likely to match up. It'll just happen at the 5 spot instead of power forward.
Joe Johnson and Pierce are essentially mirror images of one another, both capable of explosive scoring games and both solid defensively.
The similarities between these two veteran groups will make home court something of a non-factor.
So the difference here will very likely be Rondo. In two games against the Hawks, he struggled horribly from the field, shooting 23 percent. But he still dished out 33 assists in those two games, and the Celtics won both games (by a total of five points) that Rondo played against Atlanta.
The Celtics have been riding individual motivations all season long. Getting ousted in the first round will essentially ruin that run. Don't expect that to happen.
To read Gutierrez's full Eastern Conference playoff preview, CLICK HERE.