The Eastern Conference-leading Boston Celtics visit the Atlanta Hawks on ESPN, renewing acquaintances in what is becoming one of the better rivalries in the NBA.
Atlanta gave the Celtics their toughest challenge on Boston’s way to the NBA championship two years ago, extending their first-round series to seven games. The Celtics won all four regular-season contests between the teams last year, but the Hawks won 97-86 in Boston earlier this season.
Decimated by injuries the last couple weeks, the Celtics are slowly getting back to full strength.
Forward Paul Pierce returned to the lineup against Miami Wednesday after missing the previous five games with a knee injury. Point guard Rajon Rondo also came back against the Heat after sitting out a game with a pulled hamstring.
The Celtics remain without forward Kevin Garnett (knee), who has missed the last three games. Guard Eddie House, who sat out Wednesday's game with the flu, is questionable for Friday. Atlanta has no significant injuries to report.
Just getting by
Thanks in part to injuries, the Celtics have been far from dominant.
Ten of the Celtics' first 16 victories came by double-digit margins, but only two of their last nine wins have come by 10 points or more. Boston is 5-8 against the spread in its last 13 games and lost three in a row on a recent road trip.
"We haven't been playing that well and we're still at the top of the conference, one of the top two or three records in the NBA," Pierce told reporters. "We know that when we get healthy and have everybody out there, we're going to be a dominant team."
Soaring no more
The Hawks haven't exactly been tearing up the NBA themselves. After starting the year with an 11-2 run (both straight up and against the spread), Atlanta is 3-6 straight up in its last nine. The Hawks snapped a four-game losing streak with a 30-point win over everyone's favorite tonic, the hapless Nets, Wednesday.
The team held a players-only meeting the day before the rout of New Jersey.
"I think that guys just really needed to talk a little bit," guard Jamal Crawford told the media. "You know what you need to do, but it's sometimes good to put it on the table, and that's what we did."
The home team is 9-3 ATS in the last 12 meetings between the Hawks and Celtics. Boston is 1-4 ATS in its last four visits to Philips Arena. The over has cashed in 7 of the last 10 games in the series, and four of the past five in Atlanta.