It's been 23 days since the Hawks faced the Celtics and I noted the tough road ahead for Boston, at the time the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Since then, the teams in the middle of the Eastern playoff pack have headed in sometimes unexpected directions. Orlando is 5-7 since March 19th and has fallen from 3rd in the East to 6th, thanks in no small part to issues between Dwight Howard and coach Stan Van Gundy.
Meanwhile the 76ers, once clearly the third-best team in the East, have been overtaken for the Atlantic Division lead by the Celtics and dropped to 7th. This is thanks in no small part to the team apparently tuning out Doug Collins while simultaneously turning on each other. In the former link, former 76ers beat writer Kate Fagan describes the culture clash between the 76ers old guard and younger players since the team changed ownership. In the latter, Andre Iguodala is quoted by Sports Illustrated saying that teammate Lou Williams "can't guard anybody." Not the sort of team-building togetherness you want right before the playoffs.
By contrast, and despite a schedule heavy on road games and teams in playoff position, the Boston Celtics are on fire. The best explanation I've read of the Celtics' late surge is this piece by ESPN.com's Kevin Arnovitz:
[Brandon] Bass didn't arrive in Boston with the reputation as the league's most linear thinker on defense, but in the confines of the Celtics' system, he is doing fine. That's the thing about systems, Boston's in particular. [Ray] Allen was regarded as a sieve when he came over from Seattle in 2007, but immediately adopted the principles that governed the Celtics' D.
Arnovitz notes Doc Rivers' decision to move defensive ace Avery Bradley into the starting lineup and bring Allen's offense off the bench. The results are hard to argue with as the C's have gone 10-3 since March 19th, including impressive home-and-away wins over Miami. The team's only losses in that stretch were to West-leading San Antonio, East-leading Chicago and the formerly-impressive 76ers.
This leads me to conclude that it is very much in the Hawks' interest to overtake Indiana for the 3rd seed in the East. Assuming the current leaders win their divisions, the Hawks may need to achieve the 3rd seed to avoid facing Boston, Chicago or Miami in the first round. A first-round matchup with Orlando or Philadelphia, two teams in disarray, or Indiana, featuring the player (Roy Hibbert) who took Josh Smith's spot on the All-Star team, sounds a bit more appealing.
The Hawks must also win in Boston tonight to avoid losing the season series to the Celtics and thus a tie-break advantage in the event the teams finish with identical records. Since losing the first game of the season series to Boston March 19th, the Hawks have gone 8-3. However, only one of those wins came against a team currently in playoff position (March 30th over the Knicks).
The Celtics play the second night of a back-to-back after flying home from Miami, while the Hawks play after three days off. If the Hawks want to win the battle for perception and prove that they are better than they are given credit for, tonight's game will be a good place to start. I may end up eating my words from early in the season when I referred to Collins as a "successful" coach. It appears Larry Drew may be succeeding where Collins is failing.