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Preview: Celtics-Hawks

01.11.10 at 10:23 am ET

The focus around town has been understandably elsewhere during these early days of 2010, but as you woke up this morning to the reality of a Pats-free January and a simmering Red Sox hot stove (down from a full boil) the Celtics have got what you might call a big one tonight. That’s relative of course. There are no true Big Games in January, but the Celtics have faced the Hawks twice this season and they have been beaten pretty badly in both encounters.

After the latest defeat Friday night, Doc Rivers conceded to the press that the Hawks had been both, “the better team” and “more physical.” There’s little chance that the coach actually believes those two statements to be true in totality, but those have been the facts this season in regards to the Hawks.

The Celtics have a chance to make up for that tonight, which also kicks off a stretch of 10 games where they will play six times against quality teams. If you haven’t been paying rapt attention to the C’s lately, tonight would be a good time to start.

CELTICS (26-9, 6-4 last 10)

Points Per Game: 100.8

Points Allowed: 93.5

Differential: +7.3 (First)

Offensive Efficiency: 109.0 (10th)

Defensive Efficiency: 101.2 (Second)

Pace: 91.0 (21st)

Likely Starters: Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Rasheed Wallace, Kendrick Perkins

Injuries: Kevin Garnett (hyper-extended knee), Marquis Daniels (thumb)

HAWKS (23-13, 4-6 last 10)

Points Per Game: 103.4

Points Allowed: 97.8

Differential: +5.6 (Fifth)

Offensive Efficiency: 111. (Third)

Defensive Efficiency: 105.8 (12th)

Pace: 91.7 (23rd)

Likely Starters: Mike Bibby, Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, Josh Smith, Al Horford

Injuries: None

Key Matchup: Josh Smith vs. Rasheed Wallace

Wallace torched the Raptors for the second time in as many games against that defensively-challenged bunch. That’s great, but he’s also coming off a game in his recent past in which Smith was way too much for him to handle. The Celtics didn’t just get Wallace to play well against mediocre teams. They got him to play well against the best, and while running around the floor all night with a young buck more than a decade his junior may not be an entirely fair measuring stick, Wallace has to do a better job keeping Smith in check.

The Celtics in a Paragraph: The pieces are now slowly coming back together as the Celtics near the midway point of the season. Rondo and Pierce are back in the lineup and should have most of the rust knocked off. Until Garnett returns, however, the bench rotation will continue to be a bit messy. There’s some long-term value in seeing how the various pieces fit in different patterns and there’s still ample time for Rivers to experiment with combinations, but the Celtics could use some stability.

The Hawks in a Paragraph: One night after beating the Celtics the Hawks went to Orlando and got blown out by the Magic, so there are still some conflicting signs in Atlanta. Until the Hawks gain some long-term consistency it will be hard for them to rise above “dangerous” and be considered “legitimate.”

What to Watch For: Games between the Celtics and Hawks have had an edge to them. For whatever reason the Celtics have not held their composure against Atlanta. If they’re settling for contested jump shots, looking around for calls and then getting beat in transition, it will be a long night. If the Celtics can grind it out in the halfcourt, limit the Hawks to one shot and execute when things get hectic, they’ve got a chance to get a win.

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