Celtics-Hawks Preview

The Associated Press

If the Boston Celtics don't win in Atlanta on Friday night, they'll probably have to open the playoffs there next weekend.

For that reason, this potential first-round preview appears crucial as the Celtics - without Rajon Rondo and Ray Allen again - try to sweep the regular-season series with the Hawks.

Boston (37-26) clinched a fifth straight Atlantic Division title Wednesday with a 102-98 win over Orlando, guaranteeing the team one of the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference.

It's not, however, assured of home-court advantage in the opening round. It's possible the Hawks (37-25) could finish in the No. 5 spot but with a better record, which would put Game 1 at Philips Arena.

That scenario would become likely if Atlanta wins Friday. Although the Celtics own the tiebreaker, a defeat would drop Boston two games back of the Hawks in the loss column.

After this game, Boston has two more contests and Atlanta three.

"Our focus is us," Hawks coach Larry Drew said. "We can't control anything else outside of what we do. We'll come into Friday night's game with a defined game plan. Chances are, there's going to be some adjustments along the way, but we know what we have to do, how we have to play."

Home-court advantage was vital the last time these teams met in the postseason. The road team did not win a game in the first-round series in 2008 as the top-seeded Celtics won in seven en route to the franchise's 17th NBA title.

The Hawks are 10-3 at home since the beginning of March, but they posted their lowest point total of the season in Atlanta on March 19 in a 79-76 loss to Boston.

The teams' other meeting was also a defensive struggle. Rondo had 20 assists, 10 points and 10 rebounds despite shooting 3 of 16, and the Celtics outscored the Hawks 4-2 in overtime to win 88-86 on April 11.

Rondo missed Wednesday's game with a back injury, while Allen was out for a sixth straight contest due to a sore ankle. Neither player made the trip to Atlanta, with Mickael Pietrus (knee) also staying home.

Paul Pierce helped compensate in terms of scoring and ballhandling Wednesday, getting 29 points along with 14 assists - the most in his 14-year career.

Pierce scored a season-high 43 points Tuesday in a loss at New York.

"Paul is not flashy," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "I don't even know how Paul scores sometimes. He doesn't look like he's that quick but he is. He's got a gift. He's a professional scorer."

The Hawks have done a good job of limiting Pierce this season, holding him to an average of 13.5 points and 30.3 percent shooting.

Atlanta, in the midst of a five-game homestand to close the regular season, should be well rested after building a huge lead and sitting its starters for much of a 116-84 win over Detroit on Wednesday.

Tracy McGrady scored a season-high 17 points off the bench.

"We really wanted to come out with a lot of energy," center Jason Collins said. "We want to finish the season strong with the last five games on our home court. We've still got a lot to play for."

Collins has started the last three games with Zaza Pachulia out, but the Hawks' lineup may be more formidable come playoff time with All-Star center Al Horford working toward a return from a torn pectoral muscle.

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