When Hawks center Al Horford looks at the Celtics, he sees a team worth emulating. "They are so consistent," says Horford. "They know what to expect every night. That's what separates the good teams from the great ones." What Horford didn't mention is what else he sees in Boston: an opponent Atlanta owns. At week's end the Celtics were 19--7 against the Eastern Conference—and three of those losses have come to the Hawks. "When we play them, it's emotional," says Horford. "Our guys get really excited about it."
While Boston's incessant trash talk and staunch refusal to recognize the rivalry motivates the Hawks, their recent dominance is mainly a matter of X's and O's and personnel challenges for which the Celtics don't (yet) have answers. The Atlanta formula:
Switch it up Much of the Celtics' offense originates with pick-and-rolls for Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce and stagger screens and pin downs for Ray Allen, all aimed at creating mismatches. But the Hawks have enough size in the backcourt (6'7", 240-pound Joe Johnson) and athleticism in the frontcourt (Horford and Josh Smith) that they can easily switch. "Atlanta and Denver are the two teams in the league that can switch two through five and not lose a whole lot defensively," says an Eastern coach. "It's disruptive." That was apparent on Nov. 13, when the Hawks' swarming D held Boston to 1-for-15 three-point shooting.
Employ a supersub Combo guard Jamal Crawford, acquired from the Warriors last summer, has torched the Celtics for 17.7 points per game and had a 14-point fourth quarter in a Jan. 8 win. "Last season [Atlanta] had Flip Murray in that role," says an Eastern scout. "[The 6'5" Crawford] is a monster upgrade. There aren't many guys in the league quick enough to defend him. And none of them are on Boston's bench."
Score off scrambles "Their ability to make shots off of broken plays is something we're going to have to solve," admits Boston coach Doc Rivers. Johnson is one of the best in the league at turning a busted play into a bucket, with a strong J and a powerful frame that enables him to get the ball to the rim in traffic. And the Hawks have five players shooting 35% or better from three-point range, giving them multiple options when plays break down.
Boston, predictably, downplays its futility against the Hawks. "I don't think anyone here thinks they are a tough matchup," says Allen. "We just have to play better." The Celtics get one more crack at their nemesis, on Jan. 29. But the two teams are on course to meet in the second round of the playoffs, when the Hawks could find out if after two years of wanting to beat Boston in the postseason, they've really unlocked the secret to doing so.
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Even though Rockets center Yao Ming(below) hasn't played since having surgery on his left foot last July, he still would have been a likely All-Star starter due to the large number of votes cast in China. Not wanting to risk receiving an honor he didn't deserve, Yao—who's been chosen as a starter in each of his seven seasons—called the league before the season and asked that he be removed from the ballot.... Larry Brown's future in Charlotte is tied directly to Michael Jordan's. The Bobcats are expected to be sold in the near future and new ownership could opt to remove Jordan from the front office. If so, Brown is unlikely to coach the team beyond next season, when his contract runs out.
ELSA/GETTY IMAGES (HORFORD)
TRADING PLACES Horford's ability to switch off to smaller, quicker players like Rondo has helped the Hawks stymie Boston.
GREG NELSON (YAO)