The Atlanta Hawks return to Boston tonight to take on the Celtics in Game 6 of their first round 4 vs. 5 Eastern Conference series. On Tuesday the Hawks staved off elimination with a gutsy 87-86 victory in the ATL.
Both sides had five players score in double figures, and the 48 wasn’t decided until the final moments as Rajon Rondo stole Josh Smith’s inbounds pass with 10 tics on the clock and raced down the court. Unfortunately for the Green Teamers, the Boston PG got caught up along the sideline with Al Horford and threw the ball away as time expired.
Speaking of Horford, the Hawks center returned to Larry Drew’s starting lineup for the first time since January 11th when he tore his left pectoral muscle. The 5th-year big man and 2X NBA All-Star had 19 points, 11 boards, 3 steals and 3 blocks in an unexpected 41 minutes of run.
The insertion of Horford into the first 5 was accompanied by another tactical rotation decision. Instead of veteran 6’4” Kirk Hinrich, the Hawks moved the 6’9” Marvin Williams into the starting five, which allowed Joe Johnson to switch to the 2-guard spot.
This forced coach Doc Rivers’ hand in that his backcourt of 6’1” Rondo and 6’2”, 2nd-year Avery Bradley were less effective on both ends. Bradley ended up playing only 18 minutes with 2 shots and 2 points as the C’s utilized the taller Ray Allen and Mickael Pietrus to counter the Hawks’ length on the wings.
The Celts won both games played on their homecourt in this series. In Game 3, with Josh Smith out with a tweaked knee and rugged Horford not yet available, Atlanta took Boston to overtime before losing 90-84. The Hawks full roster was available in Game 4 at the TD Garden, but the C’s annihilated them 101-79. And it wasn’t really that close. The largest Boston lead was 37 before Doc Rivers pulled his core guys and let the bench finish the rout.
The Celtics posted a strong 24-9 home record during the regular season. However, the Hawks were one of only seven teams in the league with a winning record on the road. In addition, both Boston starters captain Paul Pierce and Avery Bradley are dinged-up. The 14th-year Pierce has a sprained MCL in his left knee, and a strained left rotator cuff has slowed the defensive savant Bradley. Both are expected to play tonight in their diminished capacities.
The Hawks would love to send this series back to Hotlanta for a home-cooked Game 7, so look for this young, anything-can-happen roster to battle all night with their backs up against the elimination wall. Tune in this evening at 8PM ET to TNT as the 17-banner Celtics try to finish off the Hawks in Titletown.
The Chicago Bulls (50-19) come to the Peach State to take on the Atlanta Hawks (40-30). This evening’s contest will be the finale of the three scheduled meetings this 2010-11 NBA regular season between these Eastern Conference playoff-bound teams.
In round one, Atlanta rallied from a 19-point deficit to best the Bulls on March 2nd at Philips Arena, 83-80. Al Horford led the comeback with a career-high tying 31 points in that game. This loss lit a fire under Chicago. The Bulls proceeded to go on an 8-game winning streak and are 9-1 in their last 10. In the Bulls-Hawks rematch on March 11th, in the midst of this season-best streak, leading MVP candidate Derrick Rose scored 34 points in a win (94-76) over the Hawks in the Windy City.
Chicago is now tied with the Boston Celtics for the #1 seed in the East, while both sit only 2.5 games ahead of the dangerously talented and constantly scrutinized team in Miami. With only three weeks remaining until the 82 regular are done, players and hoops-heads alike are no doubt looking ahead to the postseason. Both the Hawks and Bulls will be part of commissioner Stern’s 2011 ‘after-party’ in the Eastern Conference.
Atlanta is seemingly locked into the 5th spot in the East – 4.5 games behind the Orlando Magic and 4 games above the Philadelphia 76ers. They won Sunday at home over the Detroit Pistons (104-96) with six Hawks reaching double figures. However, this W only raised their record in the last 10 games to 4-6. The Hawks have to pull together and string together some much-needed wins in their last dozen games so they can establish momentum going into the playoffs.
Forging full steam ahead, the Bulls dominated the Sacramento Kings last night at the United Center, 132-92, with their highest scoring output in nearly three seasons. Ninth-year PF Carlos Boozer returned to the lineup for Chicago after sitting out 5 games with a sprained ankle. The former Dukie scored 16 points, grabbed 5 boards and dished 4 dimes in only 26 minutes. In fact, the game was so one-sided that the Bulls outscored the Kings in every quarter and were able to get their starters significant bench time. PG Rose had 18 points and 8 dimes in only 28 minutes, so he should be more rested than usual in the second game of this Bulls back-to-back.
A victory tonight for the Hawks (who began as the Buffalo Bisons – kinda like a Bull, no?), against the NBA’s hottest team (though only 19-15 on the road) would be a great springboard for the stretch-run and a solid season closeout before the first round of the playoffs. Dick Stockton, who’s been my first-round broadcast partner the last couple of seasons, will join me in the booth tonight when the Hawks take on the Bulls at 8:00 PM ET on TNT.