The Atlanta Hawks nearly stunned the Boston Celtics last spring, taking the eventual NBA champions to a seventh game in the first round of the playoffs despite a 29-game discrepancy between their regular-season records.This season, the Hawks have quickly taken to surprising the rest of the league.
The Eastern Conference's lone unbeaten team will look to stay that way on Wednesday night in Boston, where Atlanta has something to prove after losing four playoff games in lopsided fashion at the TD Banknorth Garden.
While the Hawks qualified for the postseason for the first time in nine years in 2007-08, they won just 37 games to clinch the eighth seed in the East, and few figured they could challenge the 66-win Celtics.
But Atlanta won all three of its home games, pushing Boston to the limit before an ugly 99-65 loss in Game 7. All four of the Hawks' defeats came by at least 19 points, as they averaged 77.0 and shot 36.2 percent in those games.
"I wish we could have played all of our games in Atlanta," Hawks coach Mike Woodson said after the series. "Nobody thought we had an opportunity to even win a game in this series. We battled them right to the end."
In the midst of a four-game trip, the Hawks (6-0) haven't had any problems on the road this season, going 4-0 with impressive victories at Orlando and New Orleans.
Atlanta also has come out with its own dominating defense this fall, allowing an average of 89.5 points.
That includes their worst defensive showing this season in a 113-108 victory at Chicago on Tuesday. With go-to guard Joe Johnson shooting just 4-of-16, forward Al Horford scored a career-high 27 points and added 17 rebounds and six blocked shots, while Mike Bibby had 22 points and Maurice Evans added 17 off the bench.
"It shows how deep this team is and we're all unselfish," Horford said. "Not every night is going to be Joe this year like it was previously. Now he has a supporting cast."
Atlanta is off to its best start since going 11-0 in 1997-98.
"No one expected it but us," Bibby said. "The only people who can stop us is ourselves."
The Celtics (7-1) might beg to differ, especially with Boston on a five-game winning streak. On the heels of the franchise's 17th championship, the Celtics haven't let down defensively, allowing opponents to shoot just 38.2 percent and score 86.8 points per game.
Boston is again 4-0 at home after going 48-7 there including playoffs last season. Despite trailing by 15 in the third quarter on Monday against Toronto, the Celtics outscored the Raptors 35-22 in the final period of a 94-87 win.
Paul Pierce scored 22 points in the fourth quarter, totaling 36 for the game while playing more than 45 minutes with an injured hand.
"I've had a sprained hand for about a week, so we're just icing it down," Pierce said. "I try not to think about it. It's been bothering me."
Kevin Garnett added 21 points and 10 rebounds Monday for his fourth double-double of the season. Garnett averaged 21.0 points in the playoff series against the Hawks.
Coach Doc Rivers' team swept Atlanta in the three-game regular-season series, winning twice in Boston.