Entering the age of reason

Youthful Hawks ready to let loose

As coach, Doc Rivers (center) can only point out the problems that his Celtics might face tonight against the Hawks. As coach, Doc Rivers (center) can only point out the problems that his Celtics might face tonight against the Hawks. (Evan Richman/Globe Staff)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Marc J. Spears
Globe Staff / April 20, 2008

The Hawks' playoff motto is "Get fired up." Another one Atlanta could have used is "Nothing to lose and everything to gain."

There is no team in the NBA playoffs with a worse record than the Hawks (37-45), that is younger, or that has had a playoff layoff longer than theirs of nine years. Outside of Joe Johnson and Mike Bibby, none of the available Hawks have suited up for a postseason game.

And the first-round opponent just happens to be the team with the NBA's top record.

But all of that is just the reason that the Celtics must respect this athletic team. While they have pressure to win their 17th NBA title, Atlanta believes it is walking into TD Banknorth Garden tonight for Game 1 with no pressure and everything to gain.

"The crazy thing about our team is there is no pressure on them," Hawks general manager Billy Knight said. "They are the eighth seed. Nobody is expecting them to do anything. So that can be the makeup for a team that can be dangerous and has nothing to lose."

The Celtics went 66-16 in the regular season, while the Hawks were far behind. Regardless, the Hawks are in the playoffs - losing record and all.

"The beautiful thing is that no matter what we've been through, or how people have talked bad about us, we've accomplished our original goal by making the playoffs," Atlanta forward Josh Smith said. "Now it's about not letting this be it. We've got to be hungry for more."

Celtics coach Doc Rivers, however, isn't buying the "nothing-to-lose" theory.

"They have the series to lose," Rivers said. "They have the same thing to lose that we do.

"I love when people say they have nothing to lose. That's a bunch of [expletive]. They have just as much to lose as us. If they lose this series, they're going to really disappointed. If we lose this series, we're going to be really disappointed.

"I've been the eighth seed as a coach and an eighth seed as a player, I thought the same pressure as the first seed. You want to win that series."

Said Celtics forward Kevin Garnett, "Our mentality here is to take it one game at a time and always respect our opponent."

The Hawks' roster has several young and athletic players in Smith, a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, swingmen Josh Childress and Marvin Williams, and Rookie of the Year candidate Al Horford. But on a team that averages 24.8 years of age, the two veteran leaders are Johnson (26) and Bibby (30 on May 13).

Johnson, a two-time All-Star, averaged 21.7 points, 4.5 rebounds, and 5.8 assists, and had a 3-point shooting percentage of .381. In three games against his former team this season, Johnson averaged 15.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists, and 2.7 steals.

"Joe Johnson is a great player and he's capable of taking over games," Rivers said of the Celtics' first-round pick in 2001 (10th overall).

One reason Johnson's scoring numbers may have dipped against Boston is that he must expend energy guarding Ray Allen. There is a lot of pressure on Johnson to score, but Allen has the likes of Garnett and Paul Pierce to share the scoring load.

"[Johnson] needs to score," Allen said. "He's got to score. On the flip side, offensively for me we have a couple guys that can score. I'll be more focused on keeping him from scoring."

The Hawks heard criticism for passing over the likes of Deron Williams, Chris Paul, and other point guards in recent drafts. But on Feb. 16, Atlanta finally was able to find its point guard by sending four players and a draft pick to Sacramento for Bibby.

The effect of the 10-year veteran on the team can be seen in its record (22-28 before, 15-17 after), points per game (94.8 before, 103.5 after), and assists per game (21.2 before, 23.3 after).

Bibby, who has a team-high 51 games of playoff experience, is averaging 14.1 points, 6.5 assists, and a .369 3-point percentage with the Hawks.

"We still have one of the youngest teams in the NBA," Knight said. "We thought a veteran guy would elevate our team and add to the leadership role. He's also added to the production of Joe. You can't double-team Joe now. Joe's average has gone up 3 or 4 points per game.

"A lot of guys' numbers have went up with Mike because he can score and he throws good lobs, and pushes the ball up the floor."

Said Rivers, "They changed once they got Bibby, no doubt about it. They changed their direction. They know how they want to play now. Bibby sets the table for them."

Knight has no problem saying the Hawks are far from being a finished project and are big underdogs in this series, but he isn't throwing in the towel, either.

"The Celtics have the best record and expect to go all the way," Knight said. "We are the eighth seed with the lowest record. We have nothing to lose at all.

"We should go out, play loose and try to come up with something. We will gain some experience playing against these guys and maybe we can make some noise."

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