ATLANTA — The Atlanta Hawks are running out of players.
The team learned Wednesday that forward Josh Smith has a strained tendon in his left knee, perhaps costing the Hawks another key player for their playoff series against the Boston Celtics.
Smith is day-to-day and it’s not known if he’ll be able to go in Game 3 Friday night. While the injury doesn’t sound as serious as some feared before he underwent an MRI, it’s worth noting that Hawks center Zaza Pachulia is also considered day-to-day because of a sprained left foot — and he hasn’t been on the court in nearly three weeks.
“I’m very concerned about it,” coach Larry Drew said after the team held a brief shootaround and film session at Philips Arena. “I know Josh is a guy, that if he’s just hurting, he’s going to play. He has that kind of toughness. But if it’s a situation where he can’t play, then he won’t be out there.”
The Celtics evened the series 1-1 on Tuesday night, rallying in the fourth quarter for an 87-80 victory. Smith, who has battled tendinitis this season, appeared to be having trouble with his knee at several points in the game. He finally headed to the locker room with 4:20 remaining, and the Hawks’ offense bogged down without his presence in the post.
Now, Atlanta is facing the prospect of trying to regain home-court advantage while missing its top two centers, Al Horford and Pachulia, and possibly Smith, who had taken over many of the offensive responsibilities in the lane after Horford went down early in the season with a torn pectoral muscle.
Smith averaged a career- best 18.8 points a game during the regular season. He led the Hawks to a Game 1 victory with 22 points and 18 rebounds, and followed with 16 points and 12 rebounds on Tuesday.
“He’s just been so good for us,” Drew said. “He’s certainly a key component in order for us to have success.
Obviously, we already have both centers out, and now we’re looking at our starting power forward possibly being injured. These type of situations have been happening to us all year. We’ve been kind of snake-bit, but we’re just hoping for the best.”
Horford had wanted to return for the playoffs, but he’s already ruled himself out of the entire first round. Pachulia took over as the starting center and did a solid job, but he was injured in mid-April and missed the last seven games of the regular season. The Hawks keep evaluating him on a daily basis, but he’s still wearing a protective boot on his foot and there’s no indication that he’s close to returning.
“We’ve had a lot of bumps in the road this year, and we’ve been able to overcome them all,” said Jason Collins, who’s gone from third string to starting center. “This is just another one. There’s a lot of guys on this team with a lot of playoff experience. If someone goes down, someone else steps right in.”
But losing Smith for even one game would be a huge blow. Ivan Johnson, a 28-year-old rookie and most likely candidate to step in at power forward, has been a solid contributor off the bench but isn’t likely to be nearly as effective Smith over long stretches. The Hawks got a glimpse of how tough it would be without J-Smoove when he left Game 2 with Boston clinging to a 74-72 lead.
Going to a small lineup and trying to spread the court, the Hawks couldn’t find any space to get open looks. They missed four of their next five shots — including a couple of long, desperate 3-pointers — and turned it over twice, allowing the Celtics to pull away.
“If you’re slow and methodical getting into sets, it feeds right into what they want to do,” Drew said. “We have to continue a mindset of trying to get out there and get easy fast-break points. If it’s not there, we have to run our sets and run them with pace. In that fourth quarter, we just played too slow and too methodical. Boston is a good half-court team, especially in the fourth quarter. We fed right into their defense in the fourth quarter.”
But that’s not taking anything away from the gutty Celtics. They evened the series without point guard Rajon
Rondo, who was suspended for Game 2 after bumping an official in the opener. Paul Pierce took the game in his own hands, scoring 36 points to almost single-handedly beat the Hawks. He actually outscored Atlanta all by himself, 18-15, after the Hawks built an 11-point lead late in the third quarter.
“We’ve won games this year without some of our key players,” coach Doc Rivers said. “This is a tough-minded basketball team, and having a lot of veterans on your team helps with that.”
Rondo will be back in the lineup when the series shifts to Boston for the next two games. Also, the Celtics are still hoping to get a contribution from shooting guard Ray Allen, who’s missed the first two games of the series with a sprained right ankle.
Rivers gave his team Wednesday off.
As for the Hawks, they’re just hoping for the best with Smith.
“I don’t want to think about” not having him for Game 3, forward Marvin Williams said, shaking his head. “I’m just trying to stay optimistic at this point.”