ATLANTA Nobody said winning in the playoffs was easy. And closing out a series? Even tougher.
It certainly has been that way for the Boston Celtics under Doc Rivers. For all that Rivers has done well, putting teams away has not been one of them.
Under Rivers' watch, the Celtics are just 9-12 in close-out games.
On the road, Boston's close 'em out woes are even worse, with the C's posting a 2-9 record in such games.
Fortunately for them, they face an Atlanta team that has been even worse when faced with the prospect of being eliminated.
In fact, each of the last three seasons for the Hawks have ended with a playoff loss at home. And the losses have been by a surprisingly lopsided 14.7 points per game margin.
Regardless of what has happened in the past, the Celtics are gearing up for what they believe will be the toughest game of the season.
"I just feel like it won't be an easy task," said Boston's Keyon Dooling. "We gotta come in with the right frame of mind. We have to be focused and we have to compete. They will be a desperate team. They don't want to go out like this. I think they'll come out clawing and scratching. We have to be prepared to match their energy."
How the C's handle a desperate Hawks team, especially at the start of the game, will go a long way in determining tonight's winner. Here are some other keys to tonight's Game 5 matchup as the Celtics try to close out their first-round series.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR -- Rajon Rondo has been able to shred the Hawks apart in bite-size chunks that the Celtics are simply devouring. If you're Atlanta, you have to find a way to get the ball out of his hands. Don't be surprised if the Hawks look to apply more full-court pressure to Rondo, with the hopes of getting the ball out of his hands and into the hands of Avery Bradley who doesn't handle the ball nearly as well as Rondo. Not only does this take the ball out of the C's best play-maker, but it also kills time on the shot clock which makes it tougher for the Celtics to execute the way they want to offensively.
MATCHUP TO WATCH -- Paul Pierce vs. Joe Johnson: This has been a surprisingly lopsided matchup thus far -- but not how you might have expected it be. Pierce has dominated Johnson, plain and simple. Sure, Pierce has had plenty of help defensively. But here's the thing: The Hawks are one of the league's top-5 teams defensively and Pierce has lit them up throughout the series. As for Johnson, he has yet to have a signature, big-time performance for Atlanta -- the kind of thing your best scorer can't allow to happen. Four games into this series, there are at least five players (Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett and for Atlanta, Josh Smith and Jeff Teague) who have had a bigger impact than Johnson. Another rough night for him, and he and the Hawks will have the entire summer to think about why he disappeared when they needed him most.
PLAYER TO WATCH -- For a guy who missed all but 11 games of the 2011-2012 season, Al Horford (12 points, five rebounds) looked pretty good. Not surprisingly, he was pretty fired up once he got on the floor (he hit Greg Stiemsma with an elbow mere seconds after checking into the game, and was called for an offensive foul) and his timing was off early on, but his availability can do nothing but help the Hawks keep their fading playoff hopes alive.
STAT TO TRACK -- You had to bank on Kevin Garnett dominating the series with whomever he matched up against at the center position for the Hawks. But this has been ridiculous. Put it this way: Garnett has had two games in which he scored 20 points. Jason Collins has scored a total of 12 points and aside from Game 1 has not presented much of a fight defensively in limiting Garnett's effectiveness. The return of Al Horford should close the gap at the center position for Atlanta. But even with him back, look for Garnett to still win this matchup -- and with that, the C's to likely close out the series tonight.