Celtics vs. Hawks
DON'T COUNT HAWKS OUT YET
The Boston Celtics have put themselves in the driver's seat of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series by stealing a game from the Atlanta Hawks on the road. But don't book those hotels for Chicago (or Philly?) just yet.
The Celtics have a way of making things difficult on themselves this season and nothing has been a slam dunk for Boston.
While the Hawks certainly have their fair share of woes -- the latest being the left knee injury that has left Josh Smith as day-to-day -- Atlanta should probably be up 2-0 in this series if not for fumbling away an 11-point lead over the final 15 minutes of Tuesday's Game 2.
The Hawks shouldn't be overwhelmed as the series shifts to Boston. They played the Celtics tough here back in mid-April (though you can make the case that Boston was coming off an emotional back-to-back with Miami and Atlanta was rested and still lost in overtime). Regardless, don't expect the Hawks to be as lost in the headlights as they were at times during the 2008 series in which Boston leaned on home-court advantage to start its march to a world title.
The Hawks have shown many of the tenets of a team that can give Boston headaches. Jeff Teague continues to emerge and his breakneck pace last night had the Celtics scrambling to slow him down. Kirk Hinrich keeps hitting big shots. Joe Johnson has struggled, but that means the best might still be to come for him. If Smith and Zaza Pachulia can get healthy again, that's still an imposing frontcourt even without Al Horford available.
But let's face it, the Celtics' biggest opponent the rest of this series is themselves. In the second half of the season they played better at the Garden, finishing 24-9 there overall, and must continue to thrive in front of the home fans, particularly with the prospect of having to travel for Game 7 if the series goes the distance.
Boston has to find a way to play more consistent ball and avoid the lapses like the first-quarter lull in Game 1 that ultimately spelled their demise. Health remains an issue, too, with Ray Allen's balky ankle and Boston dangerously thin on depth (even if it won Game 2 in part because bench players like Keyon Dooling and Marquis Daniels stepped up in Rajon Rondo's absence).
This series isn't over yet, but maybe only because Boston has yet to show the ability to stomp on an opponent's throat when it has had the chance this season.
CELTICS NOW IN FULL CONTROL
With home-court advantage now on their side, the Celtics definitely have control of this series. They'll be getting Rajon Rondo back for Game 3, and you can be sure he'll come through with a masterful performance to help make up for his unnecessary absence in Game 2. Meanwhile, Paul Pierce proved on Tuesday night that he can get to the rim and score at will, and Josh Smith's status is already questionable for Game 3. Even if Smith plays, it's unlikely he'll be at 100 percent.
The Celtics are brimming with confidence right now, having overcome an 11-point halftime deficit in Game 2, and nearly stealing Game 1, despite an underwhelming performance and the loss of Rondo late. What's great about the Celtics right now is that they're confident, but not boisterous. They still fully understand it'll take a lot of work to oust this Hawks club, but they know full well that they boast the personnel to do just that.
Rondo's return can't be understated, as it'll lessen the load Pierce has to carry, it makes the team faster and more athletic, and it allows Mickael Pietrus to return to his reserve role and help to bolster the bench's production. The Celtics know they can still improve in a host of areas, and it starts mainly with the bench. Keyon Dooling provided a nice spark with two 3-pointers in the second half on Tuesday, while Marquis Daniels played stellar defense on Joe Johnson, but the pine guys are still due for a breakout game.
Brandon Bass, meanwhile, should benefit the most from Smith's injury. The normally consistent and reliable Bass has come through with identical 8-point efforts on 3-of-7 shooting in the first two games. Having Rondo back in the fold should help to free him up for more open jump shots from 13 to 15 feet.
When you factor in the home-court advantage, Rondo's return, the team's increased confidence level and the knowledge that they can still play far better than they have, there's no doubt that the Celtics are in control of this series.