Celtics wary of the Hawks

Johnson, Smith biggest threats

The Celtics know they have to keep an eye on the Hawks’ Josh Smith (5) and Joe Johnson during their playoff series. The Celtics know they have to keep an eye on the Hawks’ Josh Smith (5) and Joe Johnson during their playoff series. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
By Gary Washburn
Globe Staff / April 29, 2012
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ATLANTA - Given his team’s experience from 2008 - when the heavily favored Celtics were pushed to near-extinction by the Hawks in the playoffs in the first season of the Big Three - Doc Rivers considers Atlanta not only a formidable opponent, but one that could potentially end the Big Three era with four strong games.

The Celtics enter the Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the Hawks Sunday night at Philips Arena as the fourth seed; Atlanta is fifth.

Boston could have potentially faced the Knicks, Magic, or 76ers in the first round.

No coach would choose to face the erratic but talented Knicks; the Magic can be a difficult opponent when they are shooting well from the perimeter; and the 76ers beat the Celtics twice in Philadelphia by a combined 45 points.

But even as the higher seed, neither Rivers nor his players view this series as a favorable matchup, even with the Hawks historically wilting under playoff pressure.

With Atlanta nestled in the Southeast Division and receiving little national television exposure, it has been a solid club over the past four years, anchored by perennial All-Star Joe Johnson, who probably could walk through Logan Airport unrecognized, and Josh Smith, an athletic prodigy who can defend as many as four positions.

The Hawks have been plagued with ownership issues and an ambivalent fan base that uses the NBA season as an appetizer for Southeastern Conference spring football.

Rivers, who played eight years with the Hawks, realizes Atlanta poses problems with its athleticism, the scoring prowess of Johnson, and Smith’s length. Atlanta is ninth in the league at forcing turnovers.

“Well, we can’t turn the ball over,’’ Rivers said when asked the key to the series. “They are great in transition. That’s who they’ve been. We have to guard the ball. They spread the floor and just try to take you off the dribble. That’s one of our weaknesses. Their bench, I think, may be the key to the series. When their bench plays well, they don’t lose. It’s a tough lineup for us.

“They move Josh to [center] and go Marvin [Williams at power forward] and Tracy [McGrady at small forward] and Joe at [shooting guard]. That’s a tough lineup and they do it against us more than any other team for a reason, obviously, because it creates matchup [problems] for us and we’re going to have to deal with that.’’

Johnson nearly single-handedly brought the Hawks back from a 15-point deficit during the March 19 meeting in Atlanta with a barrage of 3-pointers before the Celtics held on, 79-76.

Smith is an enigmatic player because, despite his physical prowess, he sometimes insists on featuring an erratic perimeter game that can either help or hurt Atlanta’s chances.

“He’s gonna take the jumper, and when he makes it, it’s tough,’’ Rivers said. “If Josh is shooting the ball well throughout the series, it’s going to be a hard series. And he’s going to shoot the ball and we have to respect that shot. What makes him unique is he’s a [power forward or center] who can take you off the dribble. Our bigs don’t guard like that very often.’’

Smith can defend Kevin Garnett, Brandon Bass, and Paul Pierce and is an annual all-defensive team member.

“The biggest thing I think is we have to guard individually,’’ Pierce said. “When Joe Johnson starts to go on his [isolations], he’s really tough, and Josh Smith can get it going. Johnson is one of the better one-on-one players in the league. He’s right up there with Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony.

“I am going to be assigned to him most of the time so I am going to have my work cut out for me and I gotta be able to take on the challenge. We have to contain those guys and rebound the ball and I like our chances.’’

Pierce said he will be ready despite missing a stretch of the final regular-season game with a sprained left toe. Ray Allen, on the other hand, remains questionable after he revealed Saturday that bone spurs in his right ankle will force him to have postseason surgery. Allen said he received a cortisone shot Thursday and the ankle feels better.

“I can’t say, still day-to-day,’’ he said about his status. “I am still dealing with trying to work through it. I know it’s weak but I still have pain in it. These are extreme situations and extreme times. It’s a few notches [above] what we do in the regular season so it’s really a matter of me getting my legs underneath me.’’

Avery Bradley will start at shooting guard and could get the initial assignment of guarding Johnson. Rivers expects the Hawks to post up the 6-foot-7-inch Johnson on the 6-1 Bradley. Johnson has the ability to shoot fadeaways off post-ups and also find a streaking teammate for a layup.

Rajon Rondo will check emerging point guard Jeff Teague, who angered the Celtics by screaming in the face of Allen after a dunk in that March 19 matchup. Teague is more of a penetrator and scorer and his quickness and ability to dive into the paint could cause issues for a Boston team notoriously poor at stopping dribble penetration.

While the Celtics’ 24-10 record to end the season and history of success against the Hawks indicates they should win the series, they are wary of a team desperate for a landmark playoff victory after years of suffering.

“This Atlanta team is a very exciting team, athletic, better since we’ve seen them, a more mature team,’’ Garnett said. “Josh Smith has played some of his best basketball. Joe Johnson is classic Joe Johnson and they’re coming together as a team. They have a lot of confidence in themselves.

“They feel good about themselves and that’s a thing we have to reckon with.’’

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