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Meeting The Hawks In Round One -- Maybe Not So Bad After All?

C's hope to keep giving Josh Smith fits.
C's hope to keep giving Josh Smith fits.

If you bleed green and your brain functions, you've probably had one question on your mind for the last couple weeks: How can the Celtics manipulate the final East standings such that they face Orlando -- not Atlanta, Indiana or anyone else -- in the first round?

Obviously makes sense, right? The Magic are in disarray. Star player causing a distraction all year long, coach losing control, team losing identity, star player injured, star player ultimately done for the year. The Magic have turned into one of the most fradulent top-six seeds ever, leaving everyone in the NBA, Boston certainly included, drooling at the chance to face them in round one.

It wasn't meant to be. The Magic lost a hideous one to Denver last night, 101-74, to remain two games back of the Hawks for the No. 5 seed at 36-28. They'll finish sixth, they'll face the No. 3 Pacers in the first round, and Boston gets Atlanta instead. It's official.

On the surface, looks like a loss for the C's. But let's dig a little deeper. How bad can it be facing a Hawks team that's been dynamite in the regular season but has never, in 63 years of existence, competed in a third-round playoff series?

Probably not so bad.

Let's start with this. If anyone tells you that this year's matchup will be at all similar to what we saw in 2008, when the No. 8-seeded Hawks pushed the No. 1 Celtics to seven games before finally bowing out, don't listen to a word of it. These are two completely different teams, and we're in for a completely different series.

We've heard the argument before, sure. Of all the playoff-caliber teams in the NBA over the last five years, the Celtics and Hawks have had the most continuity. The C's are still built (well, somewhat...) around Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen; Atlanta still has its foundation of Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Al Horford. Those Big Threes clashed in 2008, and they'll meet again in 2012.

That's true, but it's the mother of all oversimplifications. Let's look at a few reasons why this series won't be the same:

-There's a small matter of a guy named Rajon Rondo. Frankly, he wasn't a big factor in the 2008 postseason -- the kid was 22 and still getting a handle on who he was at the pro level. He played only 31 minutes a night in the 2008 Hawks series, often ceding important minutes to Sam Cassell of all people; he had only four assists when the Celtics lost Game 3 in Atlanta, and five when they fell again in Game 6. This year, he hasn't put up single-digit assists in a month and a half. You could maybe, possibly, potentially argue that he's a different guy now. He'll be ready to exploit Jeff Teague.

-The C's have role players that make sense now. If Johnson starts going off again, you stick Mickael Pietrus on him. If you need defense, you go with Avery Bradley; if you need shooting, there's Ray Allen. You can go big and rim-protecting with Greg Stiemsma; you can go small but floor-stretching with Brandon Bass. The 2008 Celtics were a makeshift group of bench guys that were willing to sign for the minimum the previous summer; the 2012 team is a cohesive unit.

-The Hawks have the same guys now, but there's a different vibe. That 2008 team was youthful, exuberant, thrilled to be there, and playing out of their minds. This squad, after four straight seasons in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff pack, is a little jaded. They've gotten complacent, and you see it in their play. Their effort wavers; their shot selection baffles. They can coast to wins over inferior teams, but they can also let their guard down against elite clubs.

-Last but not least, let's face it. Some really fluky things had to happen for the Hawks to force a Game 7 in that series. Pierce and Allen took turns disappearing offensively in that series. There's the aforementioned Rondo outage. There's the fact that Johnson managed to hit 16 of 36 attempts from 3-point range -- a career 36.8 percent 3-point shooter managed to shoot 44.4 percent against the (by far) best 3-point defending team in the league. There's also the fact that Atlanta went on the comeback run to end all comeback runs to steal Game 4 -- down 75-65 to open the fourth quarter, Johnson and Smith managed to outscore the Celtics 32-17 all by themselves. No one else touched the ball. That, my friends, will never happen again.

What we're looking at now is a whole new matchup, but it's still one that the Celtics own. The C's are 11-6 against Atlanta since assembling the Big Three five years ago. (If you take out the Twilight Zone season of 2009-10 when they mysteriously lost all four, and also nix the Friday game that doesn't count since the C's rested everyone, they're 11-1. But that wouldn't be fair, would it?)

It makes sense that the Celtics dominate the Hawks. They're a predictable team offensively, as "Iso-Joe" still rules the day and everything else is secondary. The Celtics kill predictable teams. They work too hard, they're too smart defensively and Doc Rivers is too good a coach to let a simple team like the Hawks outplay them.

The Celtics' games against Atlanta this season have been wins, but hideous ones. The March 19 contest, which Boston won 79-76, was especially hideous -- both teams shot under 40 percent and turned the ball over constantly, and the game appropriately ended with a Teague iso and an ugly miss from 25 feet. The Celtics' win on April 11 was surprisingly similar. Each time the C's beat this Atlanta team, the sentiment is "that was a win, but let's never speak of it again."

The Celtics are confident going into this first round series, no doubt. So confident, I'd imagine, that they really don't care a lick about nailing down home-court advantage for the first round. Statistically, maybe they should -- that 11-6 I mentioned earlier splits noticeably into 6-2 at home and 5-4 on the road -- but the Celtics aren't thinking that way.

This team's aspiration is a championship. Is that realistic? Eh, maybe; it's a close call. But this is Boston, where no one puts up banners for second-round playoff series, so that's the mindset for better or for worse. Bottom line -- if the Celtics are good enough to win a title, then they're good enough to beat the Hawks here, there or on Pluto. If they're not, they're not, and this is all moot. So why worry about one measly little home game?

The Celtics have that tiebreaker, but they're currently a game back of the Hawks, and the schedule isn't helping with the Heat invading the TD Garden tomorrow. And you know what? The Celtics probably won't kill themselves to win this one. If Garnett or Pierce feels even the tiniest bit sore, forget it, they're done. This is about health, rhythm and sanity going into the playoffs, and nothing else matters. Every team states publicly that they don't care about seedings and whatnot, but the difference is the Celtics really, truly don't.

It's weird saying all this, considering where we were nine weeks ago. The Celtics lost five games in a row heading into the All-Star break, they were 15-17, and they were facing the very real possibility of missing the playoffs altogether. Now they're going in as division champions, and their worst enemy might be overconfidence.

Are they facing Orlando this weekend? Are they at home? No and no. But who cares? If all goes well for the C's in the coming weeks, they'll have a lot more on their mind than petty little questions like those.

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