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Preview: Celtics-Hawks

Kevin Garnett [1]insisted to one and all Thursday night that he wasn’t hurt and that he just played like a euphemism for garbage. Certainly Garnett is entitled to an off night just three games into his comeback, but the problem is that no one really believes him.

Because of the way his comeback ended last season and because of the way his injuries were handled this season (10 days, 10 more days, etc.), he and the Celtics [2], frankly, don’t have a lot of credibility on the issue. However, Garnett had a string of lackluster performances earlier in the season where he looked slow and old and then rebounded to play his best stretch in over a calendar year. So, perhaps there’s hope that Thursday was just a momentary blip.

We should find out a lot Friday night when the Celtics [3] play the Hawks [4] and Garnett matches up against what should be a highly-motivated Josh Smith [5]. Not only is it the second game of a back-to-back, but Garnett will be facing a player who is a decade younger and who should be (justifiably) ticked that he was left off the All-Star team. If you’re on the KG watch, it starts tonight.

CELTICS (29-14, 4-6 last 10)

Points Per Game: 99.6

Points Allowed: 93.7

Differential: +5.9 (3rd)

Offensive Efficiency: 107.9 (13th)

Defensive Efficiency: 101.6 (1st)

Pace: 91.6 (22nd)

Likely Starters: Rajon Rondo [6], Ray Allen [7], Paul Pierce [8], Kevin Garnett [1], Kendrick Perkins [9]

Injuries: Marquis Daniels [10] (thumb)

HAWKS (29-15, 7-3 last 10)

Points Per Game: 102.6

Points Allowed: 97.3

Differential: +5.3 (Fifth)

Offensive Efficiency: 111.9 (3rd)

Defensive Efficiency: 106.1 (12th)

Pace: 91.1 (25th)

Likely Starters: Mike Bibby [11], Joe Johnson [12], Marvin Williams [13], Josh Smith [5], Al Horford [14]

Injuries: None

Key Matchup: Paul Pierce [15] vs. Marvin Williams [16]

In three games against the Hawks Pierce has averaged better than 21 points and five rebounds. His counterpart, Williams, has averaged 10 and five. This is the one area where the Celtics have a decided advantage and Pierce needs to exploit this matchup for all it’s worth. Williams is the one young Hawk who has not taken a significant step forward this season. Although the talent is there, he has remained fairly passive, content to stay behind the 3-point line.

The Celtics in a Paragraph: It’s circle the wagons time for the Celtics. In the past, one could count on this team to pull itself together and turn in a strong performance after a disaster like the Orlando [17] game. This season, it’s anybody’s guess how they will respond. After starting the season 4-1 in the second game of back-to-backs they have dropped their last three, including one to the Hawks earlier this month. Moreover, since their win against Orlando on Christmas the Celtics have won just six of their last 15 games. Is it asking too much for them to bounce back tonight?

The Hawks in a Paragraph: What’s the quickest way to rile up a Hawks fan? Tell them this isn’t a rivalry. There is no question the Hawks have circled their dates with the Celtics since the seven-game series in the 2008 playoffs and this season they have owned them. Still, the Celtics continue to insist that this isn’t a rivalry and they treat the Hawks almost like a little brother. A season sweep would probably change that tune.

What to Watch For: The rebound percentage. Because they are not an aggressive offensive rebounding team the Celtics are generally at a disadvantage on the boards in terms of the number of total rebounds. The more telling number is rebound percentage. In their first meeting the Hawks missed 46 shots and came away with 16 offensive rebounds. In their third matchup, the Hawks missed 42 shots and had only nine offensive boards, which is a much better number from the Celtics perspective and the game was much closer. The Celtics get around 73 percent of the available defensive rebounds, which places them 18th in the NBA. They need to get that number up to about 75 percent, which doesn’t sound like a lot, would actually place them in the top five. If they can get that number tonight, they will have a chance.