Horford's return not enough for Hawks in Game 4

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Horford's return not enough for Hawks in Game 4

BOSTON -- Game 4 was the return of Josh Smith for the Atlanta Hawks, and, unexpectedly, the return of Al Horford as well.

Smith was expected to play after missing Game 3 with a knee injury. Horford, though, had ruled out playing with a torn left pectoral muscle. But with the Hawks facing a 2-1 deficit to the Boston Celtics, coach Larry Drew announced Horford would be active prior to the game.

Horford took the court on Sunday for the first game since January 11.

We knew that it would be a game-time decision, Drew said following the Celtics 101-79 win. After he warmed up, wed see how he felt. He came in after he warmed up and said he felt good, that he wanted to give it a go. So right then and there I knew that I would give him some minutes. My plan was to play him about five minutes a quarter, just to get his legs, get his wind a little bit. He actually got out there and said that he felt pretty good so I played him just a little bit longer.

Horford checked in with just over five minutes left in the first quarter. Seven seconds later, he was called for an offensive foul against Greg Stiemsma. He finished the first half with six points, two rebounds, an assist, and two fouls.

The big man settled in during the third quarter, adding on another six points and three boards. He finished the game with 12 points (6-10 FG), five rebounds, a pair of fouls, as well as an assist and turnover. Horford clocked 20 minutes, the most since January 9.

In the second half, after starting him in the third quarter, he got into a pretty good rhythm were he felt good, said Drew. Therefore I decided to just wait and play him in the third quarter and if we could put a dent in the score, Id play him in the fourth. Obviously we werent able to do that so I decided to sit him in that fourth quarter. He said he did feel pretty good, and I thought he did a good job coming back after being gone for three-plus months. I thought he did a good job tonight.

Horford had been considering if he would play since the series began. Without him and fellow center Zaza Pachulia, the Hawks had been shorthanded down low. The Celtics, who struggled on the boards this season, outrebounded the Hawks in their Game 2 and 3 wins.

I felt okay, just excited to be back, said Horford. I wanted to be a gametime decision because in the past two weeks I kept going back and forth on whether or not I was going to be able to play. Finally, I felt good enough and confident enough to go out there.

Horford is taking the wait-and-see approach for Game 5 on Tuesday in Atlanta. Even if he decides he cannot play, he will be with him team to support them in an elimination battle.

Well see how I feel Monday, he said. Either way, Im going to be supporting the team. If I can play, I will. If not, then Ill be there to support them like I have all year.

Chris Mannix: 'Great chance' Celtics capture No. 1 seed

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Chris Mannix: 'Great chance' Celtics capture No. 1 seed

Chris Mannix discusses the Boston Celtics chances of sealing the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and which low-seed team will give them the most problems in the playoffs.

Kelly Olynyk's 3-point game is helping him produce all over floor

Kelly Olynyk's 3-point game is helping him produce all over floor

Waltham, mass. – Kelly Olynyk is in a good place right now. 

He’s playing a key role on one of the top teams in the NBA, doing more than just stretch the floor with long-range jumpers and 3-pointers. He has been a solid positional defender most of his time in the NBA, but lately he has become one of the team’s best rebounders … really!

But more than anything, Olynyk is in the best shape of his career both mentally and physically, delivering strong play in several categories.

“When he plays aggressive and with confidence, that’s when he’s at his best,” said Boston’s Isaiah Thomas. 

And lately, the best of Olynyk has been in steady rotation for the Celtics who will host the Phoenix Suns tonight. 

Olynyk attributes his recent strong play to seizing his opportunity to help the Celtics in what has been a season-long area of weakness. The fourth-year big man is a threat to score from 3-point range whenever he’s on the floor. Because of that, teams are overly concerned about his long-range shooting which has allowed him to be an effective driver into the paint and finisher around the rim. 

He has also benefited by being healthy, something he could not say was the case on the eve of the Celtics’ postseason run last season which ended in the second round to the Atlanta Hawks. Olynyk was hampered by a sore right shoulder injury that limited him in the playoffs against Atlanta, and later required surgery which sidelined him for the start of this season. 

But those pain-filled days where he gave more thought to his shoulder rather than shouldering a greater load for the Celtics, are behind him now. 

“It’s something that I had to deal with and I had to get surgery,” Olynyk said. “Now it feels better than it has. I feel strong, confident, ready to roll.”

Boston has won five of its last six games, and the play of Olynyk off the bench has been among the reasons for the team’s latest run of success. In those six games, Olynyk has averaged 10.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.5 assists while shooting a team-high 64.9 percent from the field and 37.5 percent from 3-point range in 20.5 minutes per game – all better than his season average in those respective categories. 

And among Celtics players who have averaged double-digit minutes in that span, Olynyk has a team-best rebounding percentage of .170 in addition to an effective Field Goal Percentage (eFG%) of .689 which is also tops among Boston players during their last six games.

Celtics coach Brad Stevens isn’t surprised to see Olynyk playing as well as he has now that he’s injury-free.

“I don’t think there’s anything more important than playing with clear minds and fresh legs,” Stevens said. “I just think that, and not being injured is a big part of that.”

For Olynyk, part of the challenge he has had since coming to the NBA was finding that balance between being aggressive and assertive, while making sure he got teammates involved when the opportunity presents itself.

“There’s definitely a fine line between being aggressive, forcing things, over-aggressive and create and open things up for others,” Olynyk said. “It’s kind of a balance, kind of like a yin and yang; just go out and play basketball the way you know how to play it. That’s what’s going to make you the best version of yourself and your team the best version they can be.”

Olynyk’s teammates encourage him often (Avery Bradley and Thomas are probably the two most consistent in his ear) to be more assertive, but they recognize he tends to be hesitant far too often for a player with his skillset.

“When he’s second-guessing and … shot-faking when he should have shot, just not being the aggressive player that we need him to be … we don’t need him to be like that,” said Thomas. “We believe in him. He just has to remain confident at all times. When he’s confident and aggressive, he’s a hell of a player.”