First-round preview: Atlanta Hawks vs. Boston Celtics

Ivan Johnson could be the X-factor for the Hawks if Al Horford doesn't return for the playoffs. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Like a dysfunctional family, the Hawks and Celtics are probably tired of each other.

But all we have is each other.

So, yet again, Atlanta and Boston will match up in the first round of the 2012 NBA Playoffs — two enemies that haven’t seen eye-to-eye since a nasty postseason series that went seven games in 2008. This time around, the two squads are older and wiser, but we should probably focus on the “older.”

The Hawks haven’t been the same since losing Al Horford to an injury early in the season, but to their credit, they have held it together well enough to fight through a shortened season and end the year with a 40-26 record. The Hawks earned home-court advantage in this series despite Boston’s 21-10 surge at the end of the year, and that might be a deciding factor.

Because this series is probably going seven games, much like the 2009 first-round battle.

If injuries are the overpowering theme of this series, at least the Hawks have been used to playing without Horford. They’ve done it for the last 55 games.

The Celtics, however, are still wondering what their starting five will look like when Game 1 starts Sunday night. Ray Allen has missed two weeks with an ankle injury, and he’s still unable to practice. Paul Pierce is back after missing the regular-season finale with a toe injury, but will he be able to keep up with a team that likes to find Josh Smith on a fast-break outlet?

Trying to decipher what kind of team the Celtics will be when they come to Atlanta is difficult when two of their Big 3 are fighting to get healthy and back on the court. But if the Celtics are without three-point weapon Allen for the first game or two, it could be an enormous aid for the Hawks, who desperately need to win Games 1 and 2 at Philips Arena to set the tone.

Both teams are solid defensively, so don’t expect final scores in the triple-digits. In fact, scores in the 80s are more likely. A low-scoring series doesn’t mean a boring series, though. Josh Smith and Rajon Rondo are going to load up the highlight reel.

And, yes — there will probably be a fight between Zaza Pachulia and Kevin Garnett. For old time’s sake, I’m sure.

Keep in mind that Hawks forward Tracy McGrady is still seeking his first postseason series win in a long career that has been famous for early exits in the playoffs. If the Hawks can overcome that curse (and McGrady can give the Hawks a string of productive games), they’ll take advantage of four games at the Highlight Factory and move on to the second round for the fourth season in a row.

The Celtics might have won 21 of their last 31 games, but the Hawks have won 33 of their last 55, without Horford. Because they’ve learned how to be resilient all season, I’ll pick Atlanta’s old guys to take down Boston’s old guys.

Hawks head coach Larry Drew deserves it, because he’s kept this dysfunctional family together long enough to get to our dysfunctional family reunion with our favorite people from New England.

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