Given the Celtics recent propensity for the inconsistent, one might be remiss to read too much into Thursday night's 107-97 win over the Western Conference leading San Antonio Spurs. But after a shaky first quarter in that one, the C's looked about as good as they have in weeks, perhaps realizing that with the playoffs just around the corner that time is of the essence and the up-and-down nature of their last three weeks had better be placed firmly in the rearviewmirror.
We'll see how much, if at all, things have actually changed on Friday night, when the Celts (52-22) finish off their four-game road trip with a matchup against the Atlanta Hawks at 8 p.m. EDT, on Comcast Sports Net New England and ESPN.
They have a lot to build on, starting with Rajon Rondo's performance in San Antonio. After scoring 22 points and dishing eight assists in Monday's loss to the Indiana Pacers, Rondo came back with 22 more points and 14 more assists, his best showing in ages (and his first 20-10 game in four months). Paul Pierce read his teammates the riot act for their lackluster play of late prior to the game, then went out and backed it up with 21 points (11 of which came in the first quarter after Kevin Garnett went to the bench with two quick fouls), six rebounds and three assists. And Jermaine O'Neal finally played, for the first time since Jan. 12, and responded with a modest five points in 11 minutes, a big development considering the Celts depth issues up front all year (issues that may well be further compounded thanks to the knee injury suffered by Nenad Krstic in the second quarter against the Spurs which will require an MRI exam on Friday).
The Celts haven't fared well on the second night of back-to-backs this season but the last time they saw the Hawks in Atlanta in such a situation, the Green vaporized them to the tune of a 99-76 blowout. Atlanta (43-32) looks locked into the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference thanks to a three-game win streak that has come on the heels of a 3-8 stretch from March 4-23. During the three-game stretch, the Hawks have been doing it on the defensive end, holding opponents to 84 points and 42 percent shooting per game. Forward Josh Smith has averaged 23.5 points and 10 rebounds over his last four games but in the Hawks two losses to the Celts this season, he's missed all 11 shots he's attempted.