BOSTON — The Atlanta Hawks are in the playoffs for the first time in nine years. Their stay may very well be short.
It wouldn’t even be surprising if the last series postseason series to start is the first to end.
“I told them, “go out there, have fun, enjoy yourself, play a good game, play hard,’” against the Boston Celtics tonight, general manager Danny Ainge said.
The Celtics’ 66-16 record was the best in the NBA. They had 29 more wins than the Hawks, the biggest difference between first-round opponents since Chicago was 30 games better than Miami and swept the Heat in a best-of-five series in 1996.
Now it’s best-of-seven, a minor change that doesn’t matter to a team with stars Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen and a deep bench.
Garnett returned to practice Saturday after missing two days for personal reasons, reportedly the birth of his first child, but that won’t help the Hawks.
“I’m fine,” he said.
“I watched film. I stayed in the loop and I haven’t missed a beat.”
Boston’s Big Three have played unselfishly and posted some of the most modest statistics of their careers. Rivers wouldn’t mind if that continues, as long as the Celtics keep winning against a team they beat in all three meetings this season with margins of at least 10 points in each.
“We can’t do what we call “hero ball,’” Rivers said. “When our guys start to do it, they start to try and win games by themselves. It’s not a selfish thing, but they’re doing what they think they have to do to help the team win and they go more one on one than I’d like to see.”
Allen’s 17.4 points per game were his fewest in nine seasons. Garnett averaged fewer than 20 points for the first time in 10 years. Pierce missed that average for the first time in eight.
“I made some sacrifices,” Allen said. “Doing less sometimes helps the team more.”
The Hawks also have balanced scoring with six players scoring 10 or more points per game. But they’ll be playing against the stingiest defense in the NBA.
“It’s a challenge to try and go up there and play them,” Knight said. “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.”
They’ll walk into a raucous building jammed with Celtics fans starved for playoff success.
Boston hasn’t won an NBA title since 1986 when the original Big Three of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish were in their prime. Since Bird retired, the Celtics have won just three playoff series in 15 years.
The current coach and players are saying all the right things about their overmatched opponent, and Rivers answered emphatically Saturday when asked if the Hawks had nothing to lose.
“Both teams have the same thing to lose,” he said.
“If we lose the series, we’re going to feel bad. And if Atlanta loses the series, they’re going to feel bad.”
Allen’s immediate goal is modest: “We want to win one game in their building.”
The second game is in Boston on Wednesday night before the series shifts to Atlanta on Saturday for the first of two games.
If the Celtics lose one of them, the intense Garnett is bound to get his teammates even more focused than they usually are.
Just last year, eighth-seeded Golden State knocked off top-seeded Dallas in the opening round in the Western Conference. The Mavericks won 25 more games than the Warriors in the regular season.
But that’s the only time a No. 1 seed was beaten in the first round since it went to best-of-seven in 2003.
Garnett made it to the Western finals just once in his other 12 seasons, all with Minnesota. He said he didn’t even watch last year’s playoffs, the third straight season the Timberwolves didn’t qualify.
“I couldn’t have cared less about what my compadres were doing last year at this time,” he said. “I was focused on making my situation and my basketball life better.”
That happened when the Celtics traded for him last July 31 after struggling to a 24-58 record, the second worst for a franchise that has an NBA high 16 championships.
And his presence doesn’t bode well for Atlanta’s playoff life.
“I feel like everybody’s counting us out,” 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.”