BOSTON - From the comfort of his own house two years ago, Atlanta Hawks sixth man and guard Jamal Crawford watched the memorable seven-game first round playoff series between the Hawks and the Boston Celtics.
In 2008, Crawford wasn't yet a member of Atlanta; instead he was a part of the perennially pathetic New York Knicks. But watching on television, he could still see the potential in the Hawks, as they took the top-seeded and eventual NBA champion Celtics to seven games despite being heavy underdogs.
Now in his first year with the Hawks, Crawford is a key reason that Atlanta has been elevated to one of the elite teams in the Eastern Conference and a thorn in the Celtics side. Coming into last night's matchup with Boston at the TD Garden, the Hawks had won both of the previous contests with the Celtics this season.
Last night's game had the feel of one of those playoff games, with the sellout crowd of 18,624 on their feet almost all night. In the end, the visitors made it three in a row with a 102-96 victory.
Atlanta (24-13) erased a 55-46 halftime deficit with a furious third quarter. Then the Hawks made all the plays in the fourth quarter, behind a monster 36-point night from all-star guard Joe Johnson and 17 big points off the bench from Crawford.
The growing rivalry was obvious between the two squads. Celtics (26-10) head coach Doc Rivers even got tossed when he got whistled for two technical fouls in the third quarter after arguing a flagrant foul that was called on Glen Davis. Assistant coach Armond Hill was called for another T, and the Hawks used those Celtics miscues to get back in the game.
"The Celtics get the best game out of everybody they play," said Crawford, who came into last night second on the Hawks in scoring at 16.9 points per game. "They are one of the best teams in the NBA and it's a good measuring stick. But I think we matchup pretty well with those guys."
Many of us dismissed the 2008 playoffs as a fluke, but it's now become abundantly clear that the Hawks are indeed the real deal.
Two years ago, the Hawks were young and athletic, which has proven to make for a favorable matchup against the more experienced and much lesser athletic Celtics. They also had a dynamic starting five with an experienced point guard (Mike Bibby), a prolific scorer (Johnson) and mobile and energetic big men (Josh Smith and Al Horford).
Now, the Hawks have all of that plus depth.
Crawford and the acquisition of 15-year veteran forward/center Joe Smith, combined with center Zaza Pachulia and swingman Maurice Evans has given the Hawks one of the premier benches in the league. Crawford provides 31 minutes per night, while Evans and Pachulia give anywhere from 15-20.
"Our depth is huge," Crawford said. "We can all play a lot of minutes, and our starting five is as good as any starting five in the NBA. When we have to go the bench we try not to have a drop-off."
While the Celtics are also plenty deep, their depth has been tested lately. Kevin Garnett (knee) and Marquis Daniels (thumb) continue to miss time and Rasheed Wallace sat out last night with a sore left foot. Garnett will be back within the next 10 days, and Daniels after the All-Star break according to Rivers.
Still if health continues to be an issue for the aging Celtics core, teams like the Hawks will present issues in the playoffs. If Boston earns the top seed in the East and Atlanta keeps the fourth spot behind Cleveland and Orlando, the Celtics will have their work cut out in a potential second-round matchup.
Atlanta will have the mental edge, backboned by their 3-0 record against the Celtics.
"The key for us against Boston has been ball movement, and us being able to play to our strengths," said Smith. "We've been able to play athletic and get up and down the floor a little bit. But mainly it comes down to sharing the basketball because they are such a good half-court defensive team."
Atlanta progressed to a second-round playoff team in last year's postseason, and motivation is extremely high to go further this year, especially if Crawford can help it.
Now in his 10th year, he has never been to the playoffs.
"We're a good team and I think we're on our way to being an elite team," said Crawford. "We're very, very motivated for the playoffs. Anything can happen."