Adding web of intrigue

Celtics clicking, and so are Hawks

By Marc J. Spears
Globe Staff / December 17, 2008
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Text size + currently offers a chance to watch highlights from last season's Celtics-Hawks playoff series. The video describes tonight's game in Atlanta as a "renewed rivalry." If you didn't know better, you would have thought the Hawks won the first-round matchup.

The video also says rapper Ludacris is performing at halftime, features a picture of Kevin Garnett, and has a reminder that tickets are still available. All this before entering the website.

Although the hype might have caught the Celtics by surprise, they understand why tonight's game is such a big deal to the Hawks.

"We were talking about [the website]," Ray Allen said. "I'm sure it's been up there for a couple of days. We are really looking forward to it. Atlanta is ready and waiting and they've been promoting this for a while. The building is going to be a playoff atmosphere so we need to go down there with a different mind-set."

Said Hawks guard Mike Bibby: "I don't know if you call it a rivalry. But they probably don't like us and we probably don't like them. And you can go all the way down the line and know it's going to be a battle every time we see each other."

The Celtics dominated the three regular-season games last season and won the first two games of the playoff series in Boston. The Celtics had the best regular-season record while the Hawks had the worst record among playoff teams.

But sparked by All-Star Joe Johnson, budding stars Josh Smith and Al Horford, and a wild and energized sold-out crowd, the Hawks won all three playoff games in Atlanta to force Game 7. Although the Hawks were blown out at the Garden, they went home with renewed hope for the future after years of struggle.

"We had a little lapse in focus," said Rajon Rondo of the playoff games in Atlanta. "Once you give a team confidence, it's hard to turn them off. That's what we did against the Hawks last year. They're very confident at home."

Said Hawks forward Marvin Williams: "All season we hadn't won in Boston and all series we hadn't won in Boston. We obviously knew we could play with them, though. The series was tied at 3-3. I just think in Game 7 we weren't ready to play . . .

"The only thing that leaves a bad taste in my mouth is how we played for six games and then in Game 7 we really don't even show up. They put the hammer down us on early."

The Celtics enter with an NBA-best 23-2 record, a 15-game winning streak, and a nine-game streak on the road.

The Hawks (15-9) have won three straight, including one over Eastern Conference power Cleveland. Atlanta is 9-1 at Philips Arena and Smith has rejoined the team after missing 12 games because of an ankle sprain. The Celtics needed a fallaway jumper by Paul Pierce with 0.5 seconds left to beat the Smith-less Hawks, 103-102, Nov. 12 in Boston.

"This is going to be a whole different ball club than we saw last year during the regular season," Pierce said. "It's going to be more like the team we saw in the playoffs. We have to come with our 'A game' or we won't be walking out of there with a win. The way they're playing at home, they're playing at a high level."

Said Williams: "It might be impossible not to get too hyped up for this game. We played them as well as we ever played them in Boston earlier this year. Now we come back here. They're playing well and we're playing well at home. Something's got to give."

The Hawks are motivated, and so are the Celtics, who have recently avenged a couple of their rare letdowns from last season.

  • The Celtics hammered the Wizards, 122-88, last Thursday. Washington took last season's series vs. the Celtics, 3-1.

  • The Celtics knocked off the Jazz, 100-91, Monday at home. Last season, Utah dropped an 18-point beating on the Celtics at the Garden.

    "It's another chance to get a win against a quality opponent," Allen said. "They are playing a lot better. Over the summer I said I'd be disappointed if they didn't play better basketball this year and they are."

    Said Smith: "They know they can't take us lightly. They play their hardest when they step out on the court with us. And we do the same. It's like a respect level but also competitive nature that we're going to win this game and they feel the same way."

    Pierce, listed as day to day after suffering a right knee contusion Monday night, is expected to play against the Hawks. He was reexamined yesterday, and an MRI or X-ray was not needed, according to team spokesman Jeff Twiss . . . Eddie House is expected to meet the team in Atlanta and play tonight. He missed Monday's game because of the death of his aunt. With House back, guard Sam Cassell will likely return to the inactive list.

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