The Celtics were guaranteed a No. 4 seed as champion of the Atlantic division, but the No. 5 Hawks' superior record provides them with home-court advantage -- and with it, they believe they have a chance to earn what could be their most satisfying postseason victory of the Joe Johnson era. The Hawks have reached the conference semifinals each of the last three years, but they've never knocked off a title contender like Boston, which won the 2008 title after surviving a Game 7 against Atlanta in the opening round of the playoffs. This will be Atlanta's last shot at Boston before Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen enter free agency this summer. But injuries threaten both teams.
Rajon Rondo vs. Jeff Teague. Both of these young point guards were lottery afterthoughts in the draft, and both are small and explosively unguardable in the open floor. Rondo will be expected to dominate this matchup, as no quarterback in the playoffs can rival his ability to create shots for teammates. But Teague won't surrender: He can attack in transition and penetrate the lane in order to create baskets for himself and others while inflicting foul trouble on Boston's thin front line. The Hawks can't win unless Teague is aggressive without being reckless.
Hawks: Josh Smith. The versatile 6-foot-9 power forward was Atlanta's best player this season while keeping his team in contention after All-Star center Al Horford was sidelined for all but 11 games this season. Horford has been uncertain about playing in this series, and replacement Zaza Pachulia is expected to miss the opening games against Boston That puts enormous pressure on Smith, who has the athletic talent and skills -- he can play inside or in the perimeter, he is tremendous in the open floor and he has been a dominant defender. He has yet to be named an All-Star, and a big performance here will help him and his team break through.
Celtics: Ray Allen. Boston's home-run hitter from the three-point line has been sidelined by an ankle injury for weeks, though the impact has been lessened by Avery Bradley's success in the starting lineup as an on-ball defender and off-guard. There will be critical times in this series when the Celtics are going to need Allen's shooting as well as his size, as 6-8 All-Star Joe Johnson is sure to have stretches of dominance against 6-2 Bradley or 6-1 Rondo. The Celtics won't go far in the playoffs without Allen, and they're going to need him sooner than later.
Boston has proved over the years that its best recitals are better than Atlanta's, but do the Celtics have one last peaking performance in them? As much as they'll need Allen, the Hawks would be hurt more by the absences of Horford and Pachulia, which would prevent them from exploiting the lack of depth in Boston's front line. The Celtics' defense and the playmaking of Rondo should be the dominant forces in this series. Barring an across-the-board breakout effort from Smith, the Celtics will move on. Celtics in six.