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Hawks face quite a challenge in first-round playoff matchup
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ATLANTA — Mike Woodson showed up at practice with a shaved head Friday.

Anything to loosen up a team that faces a monumental challenge in the playoffs.

The Atlanta Hawks are on the wrong side of what looks to be one of the biggest mismatches in NBA postseason history. After fortuitously making it this far with a record that’s eight games under .500, they’ll face the 66-win Boston Celtics in the opening round.

"I feel like everybody’s counting us out," Hawks forward Josh Smith said. "We have nothing to lose, so we’ve got to go in there with a mentality that we can beat this team."

Woodson, Atlanta’s fourth-year coach, has certainly gone beyond the call of duty to fire up his team. Paying off a bet actually made last season, he shaved his head to reward the Hawks for their first playoff appearance in nine years.

He’s also hoping it will distract his team, keep their minds off the long odds they face against the big, bad Celtics.

"Yeah, that’s kind of what it’s all about," Woodson said.

"Plus I made a bet with these guys a year ago. I’ll do anything to make the playoffs and give our organization and our team an opportunity to play for a championship. But you’ve got to get there first. This is the first step for our ball club."

Atlanta (37-45) finished 29 games behind the Celtics (66-16) during the regular season, the largest differential between two first-round opponents since 1996. That year, Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls — who set a league record with 72 wins — faced a Miami team that went 42-40.

Not surprisingly, the eventual NBA champions swept the Heat in the best-of-five series.

Most are predicting the same outcome for the Hawks, who were no match for Boston during the regular season. They lost two meetings on the road by an average of 16.5 points and fell to the Celtics 99-89 last weekend, preventing Atlanta from clinching a playoff berth on its home court.

Most troubling for the Hawks: They were tied after three quarters but got outplayed by Boston’s backups over the final period in a game that didn’t mean a thing to the Celtics.

Indeed, all signs point to the favorites in this series.

Atlanta doesn’t have anyone to match Boston’s Big Three of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. The only Hawks player making a significant contribution off the bench is Josh Childress, while the Celtics have nine players who averaged at least 18 minutes a game. Atlanta has improved offensively since acquiring point guard Mike Bibby, but the Hawks are still prone to woeful defensive lapses. Plus, Boston was able to rest up down the stretch, while the Hawks had to play hard until the final days of the season.

Boston coach Doc Rivers mainly has to guard against overconfidence.

"They’re athletic as heck. We’ve struggled with athletic teams: Charlotte, Philadelphia, Washington," Rivers insisted. "What we’re trying to achieve should be tough and it will be tough."

Only three No. 8 seeds have pulled off first-round upsets, and Golden State a year ago was the first to do it since the format went to best-of-seven in 2003. The Warriors stunned the 67-win Dallas Mavericks in six games after finishing 25 games behind them during the regular season.

Rest assured, Woodson will be reminding his players of the Golden State model plenty of times before the Hawks tip off at Boston in Game 1 on Sunday.

"I couldn’t be more proud of a group of guys than those guys in the locker room," he said. "When you set a goal at the beginning of the season, sometimes you don’t always reach your goals."

Atlanta rookie Al Horford doesn’t know any better. He won two straight national titles at Florida before joining the Hawks, who haven’t won a championship in 50 years, a full decade before the franchise moved from St. Louis to Atlanta.

"How can you be discouraged at this point in the year?" Horford said. "I think we’re here for a reason. It’s the playoffs. Everybody has the same opportunity.

Well, not really. The Hawks got into the playoffs mainly through geography.

They play in the weak Eastern Conference, which has a playoff field that includes two below-.500 teams (Atlanta and Philadelphia) and a Toronto squad that finished 41-41. If playing out West, all three would have been done for the year. In fact, three non-playoff teams in the West had better records than Atlanta’s mark.

But the Hawks aren’t making any apologies, not after going through two major rebuilding jobs and enduring a dismal 13-69 season during their nine-year hiatus from the playoffs.

Bring on the Celtics.

"The disparity between the records, I mean, it is what it is," general manager Billy Knight said. "It’s a challenge to try and go up there and play them. They’re supposed to win. Everybody understands that. I think the players have said that over and over. They’re the best team in the league. They have the best record. But we’re still going to go play."

After Friday’s practice, the players huddled around their newly bald coach at midcourt.

"You may play only two or three minutes," Woodson said. "But they’d better be the most important two or three minutes of your life."

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