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NBA Playoff Preview - Boston vs. Atlanta

Perhaps it's apropos that Bernard Hopkins is fighting this weekend in Atlantic City where the aging pugilist is scheduled to defend his WBC and Ring Magazine light heavyweight championships against the much younger Chad Dawson.

Everything we know about athletes tells us a 47-year-old man should fall victim and pretty quickly to a 29-year-old counterpart but I don't know a lot of people that are writing off the legendary B-Hop.

Enter the Celtics, specifically the "Boston Three Party" of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. No, none of those future Hall of Famers are nearing the half-century mark in age like Hopkins but they have all played a ton of NBA minutes and there is little tread left on the tire for each of them.

Yet, in a condensed 66-game season short on rest and practice time, no one has been able to write the eulogy for this group despite predictions to the contrary.

The Celtics' stars, with the help of superlative point guard Rajon Rondo, turned it on at the right time and left both New York and Philadelphia in the dust en route to a fifth straight Atlantic Division crown.

Most thought the lockout-shortened campaign would work against the Celtics but here they are again in position to make another, perhaps final, run.

Fifth-seeded Atlanta, even without All-Star big man Al Horford, is much younger and far more athletic. Perhaps, more importantly it earned home-court advantage in the series with a superior 40-26 record.

"Well, we'd rather not (start on the road)," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "Honestly. It would've been easier to open up at home, but we're just not."

The home floor was more than instrumental the last time these teams tangled in the postseason. The host prevailed each time during an entertaining seven-game first-round series in 2008 as the Celtics won in seven en route to the franchise's 17th NBA title.

Horford, a two-time All-Star who missed most of the season recovering from surgery to repair a torn left pectoral muscle, had hoped to give the Hawks a lift in the playoffs but that was shelved earlier this week.

The big man was able to practice Monday but awoke sore the next day, a realization that his left arm isn't where it needs to be to endure what figures to be a grueling playoff series.

"I realized that I'm not nearly where I need to be or want to be -- not even to give the team anything," Horford told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. "That's when we kind of decided that it was best for me to take some time off, keep working, see how I progress. But we are just not where we need to be yet."

Boston won two of three over the Hawks in the regular season and split a pair of games at Philips Arena. In the playoffs, this rivalry dates all the way back to the 1956-57 season when the Hawks called St. Louis home.

"We played them recently a couple times, but we wanted to take one game at a time and focus on the other guys that we had to beat," Rondo said. "We know the Hawks pretty well and they know us and its gonna be a tough matchup."

MATCHUPS:

POINT GUARD: After a nice playoff series versus Chicago last season, Jeff Teague seized the starting point guard job in Atlanta and solidified things with his speed and playmaking ability. The Wake Forest product can penetrate and kick to the Hawks' two big-time scorers in Joe Johnson and Josh Smith. His jumper also improved this season although it really doesn't extend out to the three-point line, where Teague shoots below 33 percent.

Rondo, however, is the game's best pure playmaker, a true quarterback that was the first Celtic to lead the NBA in assists since Bob Cousy turned the trick in 1960. Opposing coaches usually want to turn Rondo into a scorer since his jumper is still below average and he's so dangerous when distributing the basketball.

"He's the true definition of a point guard," Former Boston center Shaquille O'Neal said of Rondo. "He gets everyone involved and makes everyone better."

EDGE: CELTICS

SHOOTING GUARD: Kirk Hinrich gives Atlanta another capable ball-handler in the backcourt. He's not the lights out scorer you want in a two-guard but he creates other problems since he's had so much experience running a team at the point. Hinrich is also an underrated defender that works hard and doesn't make a lot of mistakes.

Allen played in just 46 games this season and has struggled with a sore right ankle. The veteran sharpshooter was nearly dealt at he trade deadline to Memphis but things fell through and he's around for what likely will be his last stand as a Celtic.

Allen's balky ankle opened the door for Doc Rivers to get second-year guard Avery Bradley into the mix. Despite being undersized, Bradley is a dogged defender that also brings much needed youth and athleticism to the aging C's. Bradley will likely start with Allen providing much-needed offense off the bench.

"Avery Bradley has been one of the best stories in the NBA this year," former player and general manager Steve Kerr said. "Last season, he couldn't make a shot. He was a world-class defender but couldn't earn any time because he didn't know what he was doing offensively and didn't have much confidence. This year, he's exploded. It started with his weak-side cutting, finding ways to get easy baskets and he's got his confidence [up]."

EDGE: EVEN

CENTER: Horford played just 11 games before going down with the torn left pectoral muscle. The injury looked like a season-killer but the Hawks did a wonderful job mixing and matching with players like Zaza Pachulia, Jason Collins and Ivan Johnson.

Pachulia went down a couple of weeks ago and missed the final seven regular season games with a sprained left foot. He's questionable for this series also, leaving wide-body Collins to open up games. Hawks Coach Larry Drew said Pachulia is scheduled to be re-examined this weekend.

"Don't know," Drew said when asked whether Pachulia would be ready for the postseason.

That leaves Collins, a player who offers an imposing presence in the pivot, especially when setting screens and keeping his body on people down low but he rarely sees playing time when it counts. In the guts of the game, expect Atlanta to go small, something that will be helped by the fact that Boston really doesn't have a legitimate center either.

Horford is still hoping to play in the second round if the Hawks advance.

Boston, meanwhile, pulled the plug on the oft-injured Jermaine O'Neal earlier this month and has been playing small with Garnett in the middle. While not nearly the player that he once was, Garnett has been playing solid basketball down the stretch and you are going to see a lot of Josh Smith on Garnett in the series, which should be entertaining.

"The one thing Atlanta was able to do when they would push Boston and play well against them was their interior was much more active," TNT analyst Kenny Smith said. "Without Al Horford, they are not active inside. Kevin Garnett will have a successful series. The Hawks are now bangers [inside] and that plays into the hands of the Celtics."

EDGE: CELTICS

SMALL FORWARD: Joe Johnson remains Atlanta's best scorer and a solid defender on the perimeter. The six-time All-Star can beat most defenders off the dribble or get hot from outside if you lack off. Johnson is also a superlative free throw shooter, making him even more dangerous late in games.

Pierce remains one of the game's best closers and has always been an underrated defender. His tremendous body control and ability to make free throws, makes him a nightmare in the half-court, especially in late game situations. Pierce has also made himself into more than a capable defender.

EDGE: EVEN

POWER FORWARD: The dynamic Smith took a giant leap forward this season and will get minutes all across the front line in this series. Always an athletic marvel, Smith turned into an All-Star-level player at both ends of the floor this season. In fact, he's the only player in the NBA ranked among the top 40 in points per game, rebounds, assists, steals and blocked shots and the Hawks are 21-7 when he scores 20-or-more points

Brandon Bass gives Boston some toughness and strength up front along with a solid mid-range jumper. It's hard to imagine him sticking with Smith at the defensive end, however.

EDGE: HAWKS

BENCH: The depth in Atlanta is solid but unspectacular. Forward Marvin Williams has never lived up to the lofty expectations when Atlanta selected him over stud point guards Chris Paul and Deron Williams in the 2005 draft but he has settled in as a more than positive contributor that has plenty of experience as a starter.

Ivan Johnson brings toughness and a little nastiness to the floor while Larry Drew has veterans Tracy McGrady and Willie Green along with Jannero Pargo in the backcourt. Green is far too streaky from night-to-night so it would be nice if McGrady got some offense going early in the series.

Boston's depth looks shaky on paper but Allen could turn that around by himself if he heats up. Two-way guard Keyon Dooling, swingmen Marquis Daniels and Mickael Pietrus as well as young center Greg Stiemsma all think defense first.

"Doc Rivers takes Kevin Garnett out of the game early and when he puts him back in the second unit is on the floor," ex-NBA coach Mike Fratello said when talking about how Rivers utilizes his bench. "[Ray] Allen and Garnett together provide enough offensive punch to the second unit that they can either hold their own or they build up the lead that they have to that point."

It would also thrill Rivers if Sasha Pavlovic regained some confidence and became a contributor again.

"I wish he would get his confidence back on the offensive end of the court," ex-NBA coach Mike Fratello said when talking about Pavlovic. "He's been hesitant to shoot the basketball. When he was playing with LeBron [James] in Cleveland, he was a threat from behind the three-point line."

EDGE: EVEN

COACHING: You have to give Drew credit for piloting this team to a .606 winning percentage without Horford for most of the season. The big difference was the improvements in Smith and Teague and Drew certainly deserves some credit for unlocking the potential of both players.

Rivers, on the other hand, is one of the most even-keeled coaches in the game and a perfect fit for a veteran-laden team. Doc is as cool and calm as it gets and he's never going to be overwhelmed no matter the stakes. Rivers is also probably the classiest coach, perhaps in all of professional sports.

EDGE: CELTICS

PREDICTION: The Hawks are certainly the deeper more athletic bunch and having the extra game in the Peach State helps but Boston has really amped up the defense of late and is getting solid contributions from Bradley and Bass around its four stars.

Since benches tend to get shortened anyway in the postseason, it's hard to imagine Atlanta advancing without a player like Horford.

"Whether they play in Boston, Atlanta or Tokyo, the Celtics are going to beat the Hawks," Hall of Famer and TNT analyst Charles Barkley said.

SPORTS NETWORK PREDICTION: CELTICS in 6