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Boston Celtics v. Atlanta Hawks NBA Playoffs Preview

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Ray Allen has been described as 50-50 for the opening game of the first round of the playoffs. In the past, losing one of the "big three" would have been a major issue for Doc Rivers' side to overcome, but with Allen currently filling the sixth man role, the Celtics should be happy to have him rest until he is fully fit.

This is the last stand of the big three.

After this season, Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett may be back in Boston together, but there is no chance that they will be leading the team from the front. Pierce is the only one of the trio who is likely to return as a full-time starter as he is under contract while Allen or Garnett could return on lesser deals to be role players.

In a sense, the winner of this series is trying to prolong their time together as a team.

The Celtics' opposition, the Atlanta Hawks, don't have the same issues as the Celtics, as their team is predominantly young, but they are expected to be blown up after this season also if they cannot dig deep in the playoffs.

Josh Smith, arguably the Hawks' most important piece, only has a year left on his deal and is not a guarantee to return to Atlanta. Joe Johnson, the team's perennial all-star candidate, is a fantastic scorer but his massive contract is something the Hawks would like to be rid of if they were completely honest.

The Celtics and Hawks are entering the playoffs as two of the 'other' teams. Neither group is considered challengers for a championship spot coming out of the East. The Celtics will likely be the biggest challengers to the Miami Heat for that spot in the finals now that Derrick Rose is lost from the Bulls for the season.

However, the gap between the Celtics and the Heat is huge. The Celtics may have got some good results against the Heat during the season, but there would be a clear favorite in a seven game series against Lebron James, Dwayne Wade and company. It wouldn't be the Celtics.

The Celtics are the favorites for this series however, but even that is largely due to the Hawks missing some pivotal players through injury.

While Ray Allen could possibly play tonight, the Atlanta Hawks are definitely without Al Horford and his replacement at center Zaza Pachulia. Horford, and to an extent Pachulia, would have been enough to swing this series in the Hawks' favor.

Since trading Kendrick Perkins last season, the Celtics have not been able to competently replace their former big man inside. The O'Neal combination, Jermaine and Shaq, ultimately didn't pan out in Perkins' place last year while Shaq has since retired and Jermaine is lost through injury.

The Celtics entered this season expecting to have O'Neal while trying to create an enforcing presence inside with forward additions in the form of Chris Wilcox, Greg Stiemsma and Brandon Bass to add to Jeff Green.

A lot was expected of Green after coming over as part of the Perkins' trade but a heart condition ultimately cost him a chance at playing at all this season before he was released. Brandon Bass has proven to be a very reliable power forward but is not a dominating center. Chris Wilcox was lost earlier in the season to a heart condition also while Greg Stiemsma has proven to be a solid backup, but nothing more.

That has left the Celtics with Kevin Garnett as their starting center along with a late season addition coming in the form of Ryan Hollins.

Neither Hollins, Stiemsma or Garnett are naturally dominant defenders at the center position like Perkins was. If Al Horford or even Zaza Pachulia  were fully fit and available, the Celtics would have a tough time overcoming the Hawks.

As things are however, the Celtics should have enough to get past the Hawks.

With Avery Bradley emerging this year, his lock down defense on Joe Johnson should really hurt the Hawks and force the ball to predominantly go through Josh Smith. Smith is a good player but has never really lit up the playoffs consistently or shown the ability to take over a series.

The Celtics on the other hand have a small forward who is more than capable of taking over this series. Paul Pierce is likely to be as determined as ever as he enters what some could call his last playoffs as a legitimate series swinging scorer.

With inferior opposition on the perimeter, Kirk Hinrich, Jeff Teague and Jannero Pargo, trying to control Rajon Rondo, Pierce should see plenty of opportunities to put up big numbers throughout their time in Atlanta and back in Boston.

Rondo really is the key in this situation. Without the Hawks ability to dominate the paint, he should be able to get to the rim as much as he wants to while also being able to set up his teammates in typical fashion. Rondo is the one truly elite player on the court who will ultimately win this series for the Boston Celtics.

How far they go from there is another issue altogether.

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