Prior to the start of this season, the Atlanta Hawks typically weren’t mentioned as one of the elite teams in the Eastern Conference. Sweeping a season series against the Boston Celtics for the first time in 11 years would likely go a long way toward changing that perception.
The Hawks look to move into second place in the East on Friday night with a fourth straight win over the Celtics, who arrive in Atlanta following a disheartening loss.
Atlanta (29-15), fourth in the East last season, is contending with Boston (29-14) and Orlando for second place behind Cleveland, which has opened up a five-game lead atop the conference. The Hawks are one-half game back of the second-place Celtics and lead the Magic by just percentage points in the Southeast Division.
The Hawks, who haven’t won a division title since 1993-94, will play another crucial game Saturday at Orlando, which defeated the Celtics 96-94 on Thursday.
A strong showing this weekend would help prove that Atlanta, which has won eight of 11, belongs with the top teams in the conference.
“That would be a big statement because everybody had us the fourth-best team but now we’re right there in the mix with the top three,” guard Jamal Crawford(notes) said after Wednesday’s 105-90 loss at San Antonio. “It will be interesting to see what happens.”
This will be the second time this month the Hawks will have faced the Celtics and Magic on consecutive days. The Hawks beat Boston 93-85 on Jan. 8 in Atlanta and lost at Orlando the next day. After one day off, the Hawks won at Boston on Jan. 11 - their third straight win in the series.
Atlanta lost all four games to the Celtics last season and hasn’t swept a season series over them since winning all three meetings in 1998-99.
“I don’t think they look at us as a rivalry yet, but I think that they totally see that they can see us down the line,” Crawford said. “They want to send a message and we want to continue to play well against them.”
The Celtics will likely be eager to get back to the court following Thursday’s tough loss in Orlando, their ninth loss in 15 games.
“We deserved it,” coach Doc Rivers said. “I thought we completely lost our focus. An 11-point lead at halftime, I told them it was a joke. We should’ve been up by 25 points.”
Kevin Garnett(notes) missed both games against the Hawks earlier this month because of a hyperextended right knee and is trying to bounce back from a disappointing performance. He finished with six points and shot 2 of 8 Thursday in his third game back after combining to score 30 in his previous two.
Rondo, a first-time All-Star, ranks third in the league with 9.6 assists per game and Pierce, selected to his eighth All-Star Game, averages a team-best 18.7 points. Pierce is averaging 21.3 points on 51.1 percent shooting against Atlanta this season.
The Hawks also had two players named reserves to the East team Thursday, making it the first time since 1998 the franchise has two All-Stars.
“When you start the season you set goals for yourself,” said Horford, who averages 13.6 points and 9.8 rebounds. “That’s definitely one of them.”