The Atlanta Hawks were the most surprising team to remind the Boston Celtics how difficult it is to win road playoff games last season.But while the Celtics had home-court advantage throughout their run to a 17th championship last year, they're in danger of creating a more difficult road to their title defense.
One game after a loss dropped the team to third place in the Eastern Conference, Boston will visit the fourth-place Hawks as the latest elite foe in a brutal stretch of Atlanta's schedule.
The top seed in the 2008 postseason, the Celtics didn't win a single road game in the first two rounds, including three losses at Atlanta as the eighth-seeded Hawks pushed Boston to seven games in the teams' opening series.
This season, the Celtics (54-19) may not have the luxury of relying on only home victories for long, especially after losing 84-82 at Orlando on Wednesday night. They now trail the second-place Magic by one game in the loss column, and may face the prospect of traveling to Orlando to start a potential second-round series.
But Boston coach Doc Rivers has said the team has bigger concerns as All-Star forward Kevin Garnett continues to work his way back from a knee injury. Garnett was limited to 17 minutes Wednesday, and the Celtics continue to play without reserves Leon Powe, Brian Scalabrine and Tony Allen.
"Our guys don't care about (home court). They want to get healthy," Rivers said. "And when we get healthy, we're willing to lace up against anybody."
The Hawks were more than willing last season, when they reached the playoffs for the first time in nine years and came within a game of a monumental upset.
Atlanta (42-30) has made even more strides this season and is in good shape to earn home-court advantage in the first round of playoffs. The team clinched a postseason berth based on other results Wednesday night despite a 102-92 home loss to San Antonio.
Coach Mike Woodson's club has now dropped two of three since a seven-game winning streak, also losing 102-96 at Cleveland on Saturday night. After facing Boston and the Los Angeles Lakers in their next two games, the Hawks will have played the last four NBA finalists in a five-game span.
It won't get much easier for Atlanta next weekend, when it visits the Celtics before returning home to face Orlando.
Joe Johnson had 30 points against San Antonio, and the game was tied through three quarters. But the Hawks had no answer for Spurs guard Tony Parker, who totaled 42 points and 10 assists.
"It's disappointing because we are right there and we have lost to two elite teams in Cleveland and San Antonio," Atlanta forward Maurice Evans said. "That's the true test, how you stack up against the best in the league."
The Hawks have also been close to the Celtics this season, but they've dropped both meetings by a combined four points, including an 88-85 home loss Dec. 17. Boston needed a last-second jumper from Paul Pierce to beat Atlanta 103-102 on Nov. 12.
The Celtics couldn't pull out a close game Wednesday, as Pierce's attempt at a go-ahead drive was blocked by Orlando's Dwight Howard in the closing seconds.
They had been trying for a fifth straight win, and they're still hoping to regain their consistency after an ugly 4-6 stretch during Garnett's absence. They've dropped four of their last six and five of eight on the road, including losses to the Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee.