8:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Hawks -2.5, Over/Under: 213
While the general consensus when discussing the Eastern Conference is that it exists as the Cleveland Cavaliers and everyone else, the reality is that there are three teams that can legitimately challenge the reigning champs, with two of that number meeting tonight as the Atlanta Hawks host the Boston Celtics in a matchup of surging teams. The Celtics (24-15, 3rd in Eastern Conference) have reached the season’s midway point on a tear, winning eleven of their past fourteen outings, as Brad Stevens’ charges have developed the requisite chemistry that made them some a trendy pick by many to dethrone the Cavs in the first place. After a rare loss during this run, Boston got back on track as they outlasted the Washington Wizards in a 117-108 victory Wednesday Night. Trailing 59-53 at Halftime, the hosts turned the heat up on visiting side, outscoring the Wizards 62-49 the rest of the way. Stevens had to have been happy with his team’s performance, as they played at a high level on both ends of the court; Boston shot a stellar 50.6% from the field, including 17-of-41 from beyond the arc (41.5%), while getting stronger on the defensive end as the game progressed, ultimately relegating the visitors to just 42.9% shooting contrary to the game’s frantic pace. All-Star Point Guard Isaiah Thomas (28.2 PTS, 45.6% FG, 37.8% 3FG, 2.7 REB, 6.1 AST) thrived in the shootout, scoring a game-high thirty-eight points on 14-of-29 shooting from the floor (48.3%), including 5-of-11 from downtown (45.5%), along with six rebounds and five assists. Jae Crowder (12.8 PTS, 48.1% FG, 42.5% 3FG, 3.8 REB, 2.2 AST, 1.1 STL) added another twenty points, catching fire from three (4-of-6, 66.7%), while Al Horford (15.3 PTS, 45.6% FG, 6.9 REB, 4.9 AST, 1.9 BLK) had yet another well-rounded effort with sixteen points on an efficient 7-of-12 shooting (58.3%), nine rebounds, three assists, two steals, and a pair of blocks. However, the biggest takeaway had to have been the collective job that the Celtics did in neutralizing the Wizards’ own All-Star Point Guard, John Wall, who despite playing well over thirty-eight minutes struggled throughout the contest, totaling just nine points on 4-of-21 shooting (19.0%). This is an encouraging sign, for after a slow start on the end of the floor, Boston has gradually resembled the pesky group they were a year ago, limiting opponents to just 44.9% shooting (12th Overall), including 34.8% from long-range (6th Overall), parleying to a solid Effective Field Goal Percentage (which places added significance on the three-pointer) of 50.4% (10th Overall). Tonight’s contest well carry extra weight for one Celtic in particular, as the aforementioned Horford gets the opportunity to face the franchise that drafted him Third Overall back in the 2007 NBA Draft. The four-time All-Star spent the first nine years of his career in Atlanta, leading them to the Postseason on eight occasions, including the best record in the Eastern Conference two years ago. At thirty years of age, the big fella has plenty left in the tank, and remains one of the most versatile bigs in the league, able to influence a game on both ends of the court. However, apart from giving Stevens a sorely-needed scoring presence in the painted area, perhaps his biggest asset has been his passing ability; Horford has flourished in a playmaking role, dishing out a career-high 4.9 assists a night, well above his career average of 2.9. Stevens has allowed him to set up shop in the high-post which has granted better spacing and an opportunity for the likes of Thomas and Crowder to get to their spots with greater ease. Granted, it’s not like he was without a talented supporting cast all those years in Atlanta, but it’s become very telling how he’s acclimated himself to his new teammates.
Meanwhile, the Celtics aren’t the only team in the Eastern Conference rounding into shape at midway point, for the Hawks (22-16, 4th in Eastern Conference) have finally found their game, riding high on a seven-game winning streak. And it’s a good thing they did, for Mike Budenholzer’s spent the majority of December wallowing in mediocrity, dropping all but four during a twenty-game stretch. Somewhere along the line, the proverbial light bulb must have flipped, for they haven’t just been beating teams of late, they’ve been blowing them out; three of Atlanta’s last four victories have come by at least fifteen points, with their most recent a twenty-point pasting of the misbegotten Brooklyn Nets. The 117-97 win was never in question from the jump, as the visiting Hawks outscored the hosts by a combined 61-43 heading into Halftime. Budenholzer’s charges shot a solid 47.8% from the field, doing the majority of their damage in the Paint, where they pummeled the Nets on the boards, securing fifteen Offensive Rebounds and attempting a whopping thirty-eight Free-Throws (fifteen more than their opponent), which is quite a feat when playing on the road. Granted, they only made 57.9% of those attempts, but in this case it was definitely quantity over quality, as they still outscored the home side by five points in this regard. By the end of the night, six different Hawks scored in double-figures, led by Dennis Schroder (17.8 PTS, 46.5% FG, 36.7% 3FG, 3.1 REB, 6.3 AST, 0.9 STL), who logged nineteen points on 7-of-14 shooting from the field, including 2-of-4 from beyond the arc (50.0%), to go along with ten assists, a rebound, and a pair of steals. Dwight Howard (14.0 PTS, 63.2% FG, 13.4 REB, 1.2 AST, 1.3 BLK) had his way in the post, scoring fourteen points on just nine shots, while pulling down sixteen rebounds (seven of the offensive variety), though he contributed mightily to the team’s struggles at the Line (2-of-8, 25.0%). Though Howard’s acquisition during the Offseason was surprisingly met with little fanfare, the oft-maligned Center has looked like a far better fit in his hometown, after years of bickering with teammates in Los Angeles and Houston. To say that he’s helped make up for the loss of Horford would be a great understatement, for don’t look now, but he’s helped morph Atlanta into one of the league’s better defensive units; the Hawks have held opponents to just 102.6 points (6th Overall) on 44.7% shooting from the field (10th Overall), including 48.9% from inside the three-point arc (7th Overall), where his presence as a shot-blocker has held the most influence. While he’s a far cry from the guy that racked up three Defensive Player of the Year Awards, while featuring on five All-NBA Defensive Teams, he’s still a plus defender at the rim, which was needed when his predecessor left in Free Agency. However, the news that has permeated from the building has been the Hawks’ trade of sharpshooting Kyle Korver (9.5 PTS, 44.1% FG, 40.9% 3FG, 2.8 REB, 2.3 AST) to Cleveland in return of the services of Mike Dunleavy (4.6 PTS, 40.1% FG, 35.1% 3FG, 2.0 REB) and Mo Williams (8.2 PTS, 42.7% FG, 35.3% 3FG, 1.8 AST, 2.4 REB). What made this transaction particularly interesting is the fact that Dunleavy apparently had little interest in being involved in the move, while the idea of sending one of the better shooters in the league to the two-time reigning Eastern Conference Champions sure does leave some of us mystified. Neither player particularly fills the role vacated by Korver, with both being considerably older, after being relegated to the Cavaliers’ considerably short Bench, which leaves us to believe that this move was made purely for financial considerations. Then again, rumors that the Front Office was also shopping All-Star Forward Paul Millsap (17.6 PTS, 43.7% FG, 31.4% 3FG, 8.2 REB, 3.8 AST, 1.6 TL, 0.9 BLK) created some controversy as well, though Budenholzer has since squashed that talk. It would indeed make for an interesting dynamic, for if Millsap was moved that would mean that Atlanta would have parted ways with all four of their All-Stars from two years ago in the span of just six months, with the aforementioned Horford departing in Free Agency, and Korver and former Point Guard Jeff Teague being traded away.