A different playoff feel for both the Hawks and the Celtics
ATLANTA >> For both the Atlanta Hawks and the Boston Celtics, the NBA playoffs feel a lot different than they did a year ago.
The Hawks barely hung on to a home-court edge in the opening round after claiming the top seed in the East last season. Instead of being the team to beat, they're more of an afterthought this time around as they prepare to host Boston in Game 1 of the best-of-seven series Saturday night.
"There's probably less pressure," Atlanta guard Jeff Teague said. "It's almost like every team is on the same playing field."
Then there's the Celtics, who are eager to make some postseason noise after sneaking in last season with a losing record.
"We've got just a lot more confidence," Boston star Isaiah Thomas said. "We think the Eastern Conference is open for any team."
Two years removed from a dismal 25-win season, the Celtics were just glad to be there in 2015. They were swept in four straight games by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, but managed to stay competitive in every contest.
Now, they want more.
"We got a little taste and it was kind of embarrassing," Boston's Avery Bradley said. "We have a chip on our shoulder. I feel like we can go a lot further than last year."
Even though the Hawks followed up their franchise-record 60-win season by going 48-34, the players feel they are actually playing at a higher level going into these playoffs. Instead of having the luxury of resting up for the postseason, this team had to play hard right to the end.
"Last year, we just kind of cruised the last month and a half of the season," Atlanta guard Kyle Korver said. "I thought we lost some of our edge."
Here are some things to watch for in the Boston-Atlanta series:
STOPPING ISAIAH: Several Hawks players described Thomas as "the head of the snake" — in other words, the point guard is key to everything Boston does offensively. Even with a sore left shooting wrist, the 5-foot-9 dynamo managed to average 22.2 points a game and, when his shooting percentage dipped over the second half of the season, he made up for it by getting to the foul line more. "I'll be fine," Thomas said. "I've just got to work around it."
KORVER'S TREYS: Coming back from injuries, Korver spent much of the season trying to find his normally dead-on range beyond the 3-point arc. Over the final 22 games, he finally seemed to regain his touch. Korver knocked down 48 of 107 attempts (44.8 percent) during that span, providing the sort of outside threat that is key to Atlanta's spread-the-ball philosophy. While just about everyone in a Hawks' uniform is capable of launching a 3, Korver is the one who makes it all work.
LIMITING TURNOVERS: Both teams are among the best in the league at creating turnovers and feeding off those mistakes. Boston ranked second at 16.4 per game, while the Hawks weren't far behind at 16.1. The team that forces the most mistakes will have a big edge in the series.
HARDAWAY'S STATUS: When Tim Hardaway Jr. was riding the bench and toiling in the D-League, no one could've envisioned him having much of an impact on the playoffs. But Hardaway, after playing just four of Atlanta's first 35 games, finally broke into the rotation and became a valuable weapon off the bench. Now, he's slowed by a strained right hamstring sustained in the regular-season finale. Hardaway sat out much of Friday's practice and is listed as questionable for Game 1.
SEASON FINALES: The playoffs are a whole new season, but it will be interesting to see if either team carries the momentum (in Boston's case) or the baggage (in Atlanta's case) from the final night of the regular season. Boston pulled off a stunning comeback against Miami, rallying from 24 points down at halftime for a 98-88 victory, though it wasn't enough to secure home-court advantage. The Hawks, with a chance to move up to the No. 3 seed and possibly avoid top-seeded Cleveland in the second round, turned in a listless performance at Washington, losing to a Wizards team already eliminated from the playoffs and playing mostly backups.
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