As they chase the No. 2 spot in the Eastern Conference, the Boston Celtics have earned three straight victories to start their latest stint without Kevin Garnett.The last one didn't come easily, though, and the next one could also be difficult.
Two days after a dramatic double-overtime win, the defending NBA champions continue their homestand Friday night against the Atlanta Hawks, who took the Celtics to seven games in the first round of last year's playoffs.
Boston is simply hoping to be healthy going into this postseason, and that prospect is in doubt due to Garnett's knee.
The reigning NBA defensive player of the year has missed 16 of the last 20 games, and has been ruled out for at least the three remaining contests on this five-game homestand.
The Celtics (57-19) barely got by without Garnett on Wednesday night, needing Ray Allen's 3-pointer in the closing seconds of the second overtime to beat Charlotte 111-109.
Paul Pierce had 32 points, as well as the feed to Allen for the winning shot. Pierce is 29-for-34 from the free throw line in the last three games.
Boston also picked up a game on Orlando on Wednesday as the Magic lost at home to Toronto, meaning the Celtics now hold a one-game lead in the quest for second place in the conference, although the clubs are still tied in the loss column.
That race doesn't seem to be of much concern to Celtics coach Doc Rivers, despite the fact that it could determine home-court advantage in a potential second-round meeting.
"During one of the overtimes I glanced up at the board and saw that Orlando lost," Rivers said. "I didn't do a 'yip, hip, hooray' or anything. I can care less."
The Hawks (43-32) have even less reason to stress about their results for the rest of the regular season, as they are all but locked in to the No. 4 spot in the East. They've already clinched a playoff spot, and they have a 3 1/2-game lead on fifth-place Philadelphia.
Still, Atlanta coach Mike Woodson doesn't want his players to relax.
"We still have a lot of games left to play," Woodson said. "We just have got to keep pushing."
One thing they can improve is their road play. The Hawks had played 11 of their previous 12 games at home before Tuesday night's 98-85 loss at Philadelphia - their fourth straight road loss and seventh in their last eight games away from home.
Josh Smith scored 33 points and shot 13-for-15, but the rest of the team shot just 32.0 percent from the field. It was the second straight tough game for Hawks leading scorer Joe Johnson, who is averaging 10.5 points and shooting 25.9 percent (7-for-27) in his last two contests.
The Hawks have dropped eight straight in Boston, including four lopsided defeats in the teams' first-round playoff series last spring. The Celtics also won 99-93 in Atlanta last Friday night, with Glen Davis racking up 19 points and 12 rebounds while starting in place of Garnett.
"With their key guys out, they still have guys on the team who can get in there and play," Woodson said. "Glen Davis was huge (Friday), and we had nothing to stop him."
Friday's game is another in a brutal stretch for Atlanta, which has lost to Cleveland, Boston and San Antonio in its last six games. It also has a win over the Los Angeles Lakers over that span.
Less than 24 hours after facing the Celtics again, the Hawks host Orlando on Saturday.