The Atlanta Hawks have established Philips Arena as one of the NBA’s toughest venues to visit this season, winning nine of their first 10 home games - including the last seven.
That shouldn’t come as much surprise to the Boston Celtics.
The defending NBA champions’ 15-game winning streak may be in serious jeopardy on Wednesday, when they visit a building where they couldn’t win in three trips during last season’s playoffs.
The Hawks (15-9) have already beaten one of the NBA’s top teams on their current eight-game homestand, which they opened Saturday by ending Cleveland’s 11-game winning streak with a 97-92 victory.
Perhaps looking ahead to the showdown with Boston, they struggled offensively against Charlotte on Monday, shooting just 3 of 20 from 3-point range.
Despite that, the Hawks rode 28 points from Joe Johnson to an 83-79 victory over the Bobcats - their seventh consecutive home win, matching their longest such streak since the 1996-97 team won 20 in a row at home.
“If we continue to take care of our home court, we can put ourselves in good position to get ahead of some of the teams in our division,” said Johnson, a former Celtics first-round draft pick. “It’s a big advantage (playing at home), especially when the crowd is up to it.”
Atlanta’s fans were certainly a factor last spring, when the top-seeded Celtics lost all three of their visits to Philips Arena, eventually needing seven games to oust the Hawks in a first-round series.
“I’ve played 13 years, and I’ve been here every year for 13 years,” Boston forward Kevin Garnett said after Boston 103-100 loss in Game 6. “This is the first time I’ve seen this atmosphere like this (in Atlanta).”
While the Hawks didn’t come close in any of the playoff games in Boston, they nearly won there on Nov. 12, when the Celtics needed Paul Pierce’s fallaway jumper in the final second - his 33rd and 34th points - to earn a 103-102 victory.
The Celtics (23-2) lost their next game to Denver, but they’ve won 15 in a row since - their longest winning streak since the 1981-82 team won a franchise-record 18 straight. Wednesday’s game could determine if Boston reaches that mark, as the team heads home to face Chicago and New York this weekend.
Coach Doc Rivers’ club hopes it will have Pierce available in Atlanta after the reigning NBA finals MVP injured his left knee late in the Celtics’ 100-91 win over Utah on Monday. Pierce plans to test the knee before the game, but Celtics trainer Ed Lacerte was not concerned.
“It should be all right,” Pierce said. “I put a little weight on it. It didn’t go back that far, so it should be all right.”
It wasn’t even a member of Boston’s Big Three that sparked the team to the win over the Jazz. Point guard Rajon Rondo had a career-high 25 points, including 12 in the final 5:20 of the fourth quarter, also adding nine rebounds and eight assists.
Different players have stepped up recently to extend the Celtics’ run, as Pierce had 28 points in a win over New Orleans on Friday, while Ray Allen poured in 35 in an overtime victory at Indiana on Dec. 7.
Defense has again been the common denominator. Opponents are shooting an NBA-low 41.5 percent from the field against Boston.
Atlanta has adopted a similar philosophy, as only one of its last 11 opponents has reached 100 points. The Hawks have won three straight overall, twice allowing fewer than 80 points.