Hawks face Celtics heading into playoffs

ATLANTA (AP) — The Atlanta Hawks head into the playoffs facing much lower expectations than a year ago.

At least they still have a home-court edge in the opening round.

The Hawks, seeded fourth in the Eastern Conference, will face the Boston Celtics in a best-of-seven series beginning Saturday night in Atlanta. Game 2 is set for Tuesday, also at Philips Arena, before the series shifts to Boston for the next two games.

“It’s time,” coach Mike Budenholzer said. “Eight-two games are done, and the season starts now.”

The Hawks (48-34) lost their final two regular-season games, costing them a shot at the outright No. 3 seed. Instead, four East teams ended with identical records, resulting in a tiebreaker that left Miami third, followed by Atlanta, Boston and Charlotte.

That could be significant if the Hawks advance, likely forcing them to meet LeBron James and the top-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round. The Cavs took all three games in the season series after sweeping Atlanta in last year’s Eastern Conference final.

The Hawks aren’t concerned about King James at the moment.

First up, it’s the rapidly improving Celtics, who have totally rebuilt under third-year coach Brad Stevens.

After going 25-57 just two seasons ago, Boston slipped into the playoffs a year ago and is now looking to make some postseason noise with a squad led by point guard Isaiah Thomas, who averaged 22.2 points a game.

The teams met less than a week ago in Atlanta, with the Hawks pulling out a 118-107 victory. They also won the season series, taking both games at Philips Arena and splitting a pair in Boston.

“Tough team,” said Paul Millsap, the Hawks’ All-Star forward. “We know what to expect from them. It should be a good series.”

Atlanta slipped significantly from last season’s record franchise-record, 60-win record, a bafflingly inconsistent team much of the way. Every strong performance led the Hawks to believe they were on the verge of turning things around, but they never could string together the sort of sustained success they had during their breakout season, in which they claimed top seed in the East propelled by a 19-game winning streak.

This team, with essentially the same personnel, has turned in some of its best performances since the All-Star break. But a 109-98 loss at Washington in the regular-season finale, against a team that already had been eliminated from the playoffs and played with a bunch of backups and a soon-to-be-fired coach, sent the Hawks into the playoffs on a bit of a downer.

“It wasn’t our best game,” Millsap conceded.

The Hawks may be without backup guard Tim Hardaway Jr. for the start of the playoffs. He left the season finale with a right hamstring injury.

Hardaway endured a rocky first season with the Hawks, playing only four of the team’s first 35 games and even doing several stints in the D-League, but he finally earned Budenholzer’s confidence down the stretch. Giving the team an outside shooting threat off the bench, Hardaway averaged 10.2 points over the final 14 games and hit nearly 41 percent of his 3-point attempts (24 of 59).

Hardaway’s emergence was significant, giving the Hawks another long-range threat to make up for Kyle Korver’s drop-off. He made 39.8 percent of his 3-pointers, his worst showing since 2008-09, as defenses figured out ways to deny open looks. That took away a big part of Atlanta’s offensive philosophy, which relies on ball movement and outside shooting to open up things on the inside.

Defensively, the Hawks will be trying to stop a team that runs much of its scoring through the point guard.

“I think offensively, they do a lot of things that are maybe a little different, a little unique,” Budenholzer said. “Isaiah Thomas has played extremely well this year. So we’ve got to make it difficult on him.”

A year ago, the Hawks advanced past the second round of the playoffs for the first time since moving to Atlanta in 1968.

To have any chance of matching that success, they’ll have to get by the Celtics.

“It’s going to be fun,” center Al Horford said. “You saw how they played us recently at Phillips. Up-tempo type style. Looking forward to it.”

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