The Celtics and Hawks have shared bad-blood ever since Atlanta's current franchise was located in St. Louis, back when Bill Russell was stealing titles from Bob Pettit and Red Auerbach was puffing cigars almost as frequently as his team was winning games.
The Celtics have always had the upper-hand, save for the 1958 finals in which Russell missed the series' final three games due to injury. Outside of that stroke of luck, the eras have favored Boston, despite those pesky Hawks trying to tear them down. There were the Nique-Bird years and the classic 1988 Game 7 they gave us. After that was the 2008 playoff team who carried their dislike for the green guys up North until both cores were disbanded last season. And now we're here. Bottomed-out Celtics vs. free-falling Hawks, with Atlanta fighting for a playoff spot and the Celtics hoping to ruin things once again. Not the blockbuster match-up it's been in the past, but nevertheless a game the Hawks need to win.
Question (Daniel Christian): Boston has been in a rebuilding mode all season and seems to be looking towards the draft. Apparently Ainge isn't head-over-heels for any of the current prospects, but what can you tell us about the play of this year's Celtics rookies, Kelly Olynyk and Phil Pressey?
Answer (Evans Clinchy): Both have been solid in their roles this season - especially Olynyk, who's gotten better as the year's gone on.
Olynyk had a slow start to his rookie year. He was a little too tentative in his first couple of months, on both ends of the floor. On offense, he lacked the confidence to take shots he was very capable of making, and on D, he didn't want to body up against opposing power forwards. He's gotten better in both of those areas lately, and on offense in particular, he shows flashes of being a real cornerstone guy in Boston. He's scored in double figures nine times since the beginning of March.
As for Pressey, he's been a serviceable player at the point. His shooting is atrocious, and whoever listed him at 5-foot-11 was more generous than Santa Claus, but he knows how to handle the ball and make smart passes. He's a respectable backup for a rebuilding young team.
Q: Jeff Green was expected to carry this team in Rondo's absence to start the season and had varying degrees of success. Could you evaluate his play this season? Is he part of the future in Boston?
A: Jeff Green gets a lot of flak for not being a superstar, and that's not entirely fair. He wasn't supposed to be that guy. When you've been traded for Kendrick Perkins, who's the laughingstock of the league these days, any production at all is a godsend. He's the team's leading scorer at 16.7 points per game, which is pretty much exactly what you should expect from him.
Green is who he is. He's a good athlete, a so-so scorer efficency-wise and a guy who shows flashes of brilliance every now and then (including a couple of memorable performances against Miami the last couple years). He's not a franchise player, and if fans expected him to be, that's their fault.
Is he part of the future? I don't think Danny Ainge is particularly excited about that possibility, no. I think if he could find a taker for the $18.4 million left on Green's contract, he would. But seeing as no one out there is really begging to pay Green until 2016, he's probably stuck here, and there are worse players to have than an athletic, scoring small forward. Shrug.
Q: The Brad Stevens hire was pretty well received by everyone around the league. He looked like a good culture guy, but I'm not sure if anyone knew what to expect scheme-wise. What did you see this year that justified or did not justify the praise that came with his hiring?
A: I think the first thing worth praising is Stevens' patience. He was thrust into a pretty rough situation this year - he's lost more games in one season with the Celtics (54) than he did during his entire six-year career at Butler (49). He's remained relatively even-keeled through all of that. He's focused on process and wants his players to get better. He never loses sight of that, which is commendable.
Scheme-wise, it's hard to judge Stevens yet because I think he's taking this losing season as a chance to experiment. He's doing a lot of things he might not do in the thick of a playoff race - the most oft-cited example is allowing Jared Sullinger to shoot the 3-ball three times a game. Once Stevens has more talent around him, I think we'll be in better position to evaluate his approach.
Q: This rivalry game will likely pale in comparison to previous match-ups' intensity and level of play, but Atlanta has something to play for. What do you expect out of Boston tonight? With the season so far gone, will they come out and try to spoil the Hawks' hope of closing in on a playoff berth?
A: The Celtics have talked a bit the last few weeks about the excitement of "playing spoiler." Green in particular has mentioned it a couple times. I'm not sure if I believe it, though. A lot of these guys, especially the veterans, seem ready to shut it down for the season.
There is good news for fans wanting a competitive game: Sullinger and Avery Bradley are both expected to play tonight after dealing with nagging injuries the last week (Sullinger a strained quad, Bradley an Achilles and an ankle that's still bothering him). The young guys on this team still have some life about them, and they're determined to slug it out for the remaining five games this season.