Blakely: Celtics vs. Hawks preview

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Blakely: Celtics vs. Hawks preview

BOSTON Often the biggest impact a bench can make isn't in how many points they score, but how few they allow their opponents. Tonight's Game 1 matchup between Boston and Atlanta features two teams who have not only had strong defensive play from their starters, but has also benefited from a much-needed lift defensively from their respective defensive units. Boston's backups gave up 26.5 points per game to their respective second-teamers, good enough so that only the Chicago Bulls (26.1) can say, 'Hah! We're better!" The Atlanta Hawks backups were more middle-of-the-pack, giving up 31.8 points per game which ranked 17th in the NBA.

However, you can count limiting bench points to the areas in which the Hawks were noticeably better at in the final week or so of the NBA season. While the Hawks have given up more bench points (33.1 per game) in the last 10 games than they did in the regular season, there's significant improvement relative to what the rest of the league did as Atlanta rose all the way up to No. 11 within that time frame.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR Tempo is going to be one of the keys to tonight's game. Boston will look to run when defensive stops are made, but otherwise the Celtics will be better served taking advantage of an Atlanta team that's missing its starting center (Al Horford) and potentially his replacement, Zaza Pachulia (foot). "He's sitting out there with a boot on his foot, so that's not a good sign," said Hawks head coach Larry Drew, when asked by CSNNE.com about Pachulia's availability. "I did not get an official word as far as availability, but we're proceeding as if he will not be available, for sure tonight."

MATCHUP TO WATCH - Paul Pierce vs. Joe Johnson: This is one of those games where Pierce might actually shoot poorly and still have a big game for the Celtics. As much as Boston relies on his scoring, they really need him to step his game up defensively against Johnson who is one of the more under-rated scorers in the NBA. "He's one of the better one-on-one players in the league," Pierce said. "He's right up there with (Oklahoma City's) Kevin Durant, Carmelo (Anthony of the New York Knicks) I'm going to have my work cut out for me. I just have to be ready to take on the challenge."
PLAYER TO WATCH - Most games, Josh Smith is a bit of a wild card. But against the Celtics, a playoff game, no one has a clue what he'll do tonight - including Smith. If he's playing well defensively and making good decisions with his shot selection, the C's will have a hard time keeping him from dominating the game. Joe Johnson's the scorer, but it's Smith who can catapult this team to the next round of the playoffs. "I

STAT TO TRACK - With Atlanta's lack of size in the frontcourt, they'll look to generate points in the paint with dribble-drive penetration. Lately, it's been working for them. They come into tonight's Game 1 matchup having averaged 43.1 points in the paint in the last 10 games. Meanwhile, the C's defense has not allowed teams many opportunities to hurt them with interior scoring. For the season, Boston is giving up just 34.3 points in the paint which ranks fifth. And in the last 10 games, the C's have a slight up-tick in that area by giving up 35 points per game.

Horford admits he was 'very emotional' after 'special' win

Horford admits he was 'very emotional' after 'special' win

CLEVELAND – For about 30 or so seconds following Boston’s 111-108 Game 3 win over Cleveland, Al Horford was not Al Horford.

He’s a passionate player, but seldom is it on display in as outwardly a fashion as it was following their Game 3 victory.

In an interview with CSN’s Abby Chin after the game, Horford tried to put into words what the victory meant.

But the aggressive high-fives to teammates passing him by, the intense way he looked into the camera … that spoke volumes about what this game meant to the veteran big man.

“It’s big, it’s big!” Horford said in between high-fives with Jonas Jerebko and other Celtics who came past him.

“A lot of people doubting us out there!” Horford said, staring intently into the camera as if he was saying, ‘yeah, I’m talking about you!’”

Less than 24 hours after the game, Horford’s emotions had cooled down considerably.

“It was an emotional game,” he told CSN following a short practice at the Q Arena on Monday. “Just, having to hear … since the blowout, everybody counting us out. Everybody really believing that it was over.”

The Celtics came into Game 3 having lost both Games 1 and 2 at home by a combined 57 points which includes the worst playoff loss (Game 2, 130-86) in franchise history.

So with that as the backdrop, knowing full well that no one outside of their locker room gave them an ice cube in hell’s chance at winning Game 3, the victory brought about a level of satisfaction that Celtics players had seldom experienced before if at all.

“The emotions at that time were high for our group,” Horford admitted. “And it shows what we’ve been talking about all year, a resilient group that has a lot of fight in them. We were hit with some adversity with Isaiah being down but our group responded.”

Thomas re-aggravated a right hip injury in Game 2, and was later ruled out for the rest of the playoffs. 

After falling behind 77-56 in the third quarter, the Celtics closed out the third with a 26-10 run to come within 87-82 going into the fourth quarter. During the run, Marcus Smart had 11 points which turned out to be equal to LeBron James’ scoring output … for the entire game.

This is Horford's 10th NBA season, all of which have included a trip to the postseason.

That, combined with having won a pair of national championships when he played at the University of Florida, serves as a reminder that the 30-year-old has been on the winning ledger of big games before.

But even he acknowledged Sunday’s Game 3 win was … different.

“I have had plenty of moments like this,” Horford said. “But this was definitely emotional. This was very emotional, exciting, on the road, no one really giving us any chance. To be able to come through like that, it just felt great. I’ve been part of emotional wins, but this one was a special one.”

That was evident in Horford’s energy-charged, post-game comments.

“Heart! Heart! This team got heart!” he yelled. “We got beat bad (in Game 2), but it’s all about how you rebound!”

And we get that message, loud and clear!

'Ecstatic' Thomas was with Celtics teammates via FaceTime after Game 3 win

'Ecstatic' Thomas was with Celtics teammates via FaceTime after Game 3 win

CLEVELAND – Gone but definitely not forgotten.

Isaiah Thomas, out for the rest of the playoffs with a right hip injury, wasn’t in the Q Arena physically, but his presence – and his face via FaceTime – were inside the locker room in the initial moments following their 111-108 Game 3 win over Cleveland.

“We called him right after the game,” said Boston’s Avery Bradley. “He got to celebrate with us a little bit. It’s sad that he’s not here. We wish he was here with us. We just want him to get better.”

Celtics head coach Brad Stevens added, “I didn’t even realize that had happened until later on. one of my first text messages was from Isaiah.  He’s hurting not being out there but he’s completely invested, for sure.”

He initially suffered the injury on March 15 at Minnesota, but re-aggravated it in the first half of Boston’s Game 2 loss to the Cavs. Less than 24 hours later, Thomas was deemed out for the remainder of the playoffs.

Instead of Thomas being the rock of sorts that the Celtics lean on with his play, he has become their rallying cry for the remainder of the playoffs.

“All we can do is play hard for him,” Bradley said. “He was excited with the way we played. We’re a family. Other guys got an opportunity to step up for us. Marcus (Smart) had a big game for us. It could be somebody else next game.”

Smart led the Celtics with a career-high 27 points which included a career-best seven 3’s going down.

And most important, the Celtics avoided going down 3-0 which would have all but sealed their fate in this series considering no team in league history has ever come back for a 3-0 series deficit.

Doing so without Thomas, the Celtics’ leading scorer and the top regular season scorer in the Eastern Conference, made the win all that more impressive for Boston.

“It meant a lot,” Horford said. “We know, Isaiah gives us so much and gave us so much this year. For him, we definitely wanted to come out and fight for him and our season and our team. It felt good to keep believing despite being down big. Just felt good to win the game and bring life back to our locker room. Because going down 3-0, that’s a death sentence pretty much. This was big.”

Not only to the Celtics players but also to Thomas who also texted head coach Brad Stevens full of excitement following Boston’s surprising win.

“He was excited,” Horford recalled. “He was ecstatic. I know he wishes he was here being part of it. We just need to keep doing it for him and our group and doing the best we can.”