1. Overall, I'm pleased with the Hawks' performance against the Celtics last night. It would have been nice to continue the home winning streak against Boston and maybe give the Celtics some reservations about playing at Philips. That said, the Hawks have now played the 23-2 Celtics twice this year and both games came down to the final possession. In November, Paul Pierce hit a very difficult shot to win the game. In December, Kevin Garnett hit a somewhat easier shot to take the lead and then Joe Johnson missed the tying free throw with 2.7 seconds remaining. Speaking of which...
2. You'll have to trust me when I say that I remarked to Der Wife when ESPN flashed a graphic that Johnson, an 84% free throw shooter, was seven for seven from the stripe "he's due to miss one." If you can't tell, I don't think that I can really jinx a player shooting a basketball eight miles away.
3. Garnett got exactly what he wanted on the go-ahead hoop in the final minute. He got the ball on the left wing, dribbled to the middle of the lane, and dropped a little jump hook over Josh Smith. Smith was too reliant on his shot-blocking skills against a guy who is almost unblockable in the lane because of his wingspan. In Smith's defense, I'm quite positive that he was terrified of bodying Garnett and trying to stop him from getting into the middle because he knew the refs would whistle him for it. [Insert standard "the Celtics get all the calls" rant from the 80s here, updated to reflect the fact that Paul Pierce is now the one who goes to the line whenever a defender exhales in his general presence.]
4. If you asked me for the major difference between the Hawks and the Celtics 25 games into the season after the teams have played two very tight games, I'd have to say it's Mike Bibby. The Celtics don't have a defensive weakness on their team. The closest they come is Ray Allen and he's not exactly a bad defender. Of the ten starters on the two teams, Bibby is by far the worst defender. Normally, the Hawks can hide him on Rajon Rondo, but last night, when the Celtics needed a basket, they ran a screen up top for Pierce to get Bibby on him. In contrast, there are no weak defenders on the Celtics for the Hawks to target using ball screens.
4a. I would have thought going into the season that the Celtics' major advantage against the Hawks would be their bench, but the benches battled to a draw last night, scoring 13 points apiece. The Hawks' bench outscored the Celtics' bench 30-13 in the first meeting.
5. Random player note number one: Boston's big three is Garnett-Pierce-Rondo, not Garnett-Pierce-Allen.
6. Random player note number two: we're 25 games into the season and I keep wanting to call Maurice Evans Anthony Peeler when I see him. I think it's the number, the bald head, and the body type. Or maybe I have Missouri basketball players on the brain because a friend mentioned the '89 Rockets the other day and that led to a discussion about Derrick Chievous.
7. I was trying to figure out last night why the Hawks play so well against the Celtics. I kept thinking that the reason is that the Celtics have two guys on offense off of whom the Hawks can help defensively (Rondo and Kendrick Perkins) and that plays into the hands of a team that has a terrific help defender (Josh Smith) and a smart defensive coach who can use that advantage creatively. That said, the explanation might not be any more complicated than the fact that the Hawks are a young team that raises its game against good teams, especially a good team against whom they got their first taste of success last year.
8. The Philips homecourt advantage was back last night. The three games last spring were not a mirage. I don't remember watching another NBA regular season game this year that was quite that intense, but I'll concede that I'm probably projecting a little because I felt intense in my living room.
9. Josh Smith, I love you, but you're showing a little bit too much Rasheed Wallace with the refs.
10. So where do the Hawks find themselves 25 games into the season? Boston and Cleveland are clearly the class of the conference. Barring a major injury to one of their key players, those teams are heading for the Eastern Conference finals. Orlando are already four games up in the division, although they wouldn't scare me in the playoffs if the Hawks met them. The fourth seed seems like a good goal for the Hawks this year. It would be a major improvement over last season and it would give the team a good chance at making the second round of the playoffs. It wouldn't have been possible before the Iverson/Billups trade, but with Detroit giving up on the season, it's quite attainable.