Hawks vs. Celtics preview: A duel in the tight Eastern Conference

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics are bunched up in a tight Eastern Conference playoff seeding battle, and the loser will take a giant step back in their hopes to improve their slot in the East.

The Atlanta Hawks visit the Boston Celtics at TD Garden Friday night in an Eastern Conference game involving two of the four teams that are within a game and a half of one another. The Celtics are coming off of a huge comeback win over the Indiana Pacers where they executed a game-winning play that used Paul Pierce as a decoy while Jeff Green cruised to the rim to finish an easy layup. The Hawks, meanwhile, are coming off of a win over the Philadelphia 76ers which featured Al Horford and Jeff Teague combining for 48 points, 17 assists, and 14 rebounds.

The teams have split their season series thus far, with their last game going into double-overtime. In that same game Rajon Rondo tore his ACL, which was diagnosed two days later. Boston has survived without Rondo, who will miss the remainder of the season with the injury, and will have an opportunity to improve its playoff seeding. A win over Atlanta would push them up to the fifth seed in the East, with plenty of time for them to still make a push to land in the top four and clinch home-court advantage in the first round.

It was a few short weeks ago that both the Celtics and Hawks were both rumored to be shifting their rosters, in particular with one another. The trade deadline came and went, and the teams both made minor moves. The Hawks sent Anthony Morrow packing for Dahntay Jones, and the Celtics traded a player who will be out the remainder of the season and Jason Collins for Jordan Crawford. Nothing like the Pierce for Josh Smith reports that had linked the two teams.

Since the All-Star break, Smith has been headed in the opposite direction as Horford. He has had trouble finding his groove despite all of the trade chatter being put to rest. (That is, until he's a free agent this summer). In the nine games the Hawks have played since returning to action, Smith is averaging 15.7 points on 43.6 percent shooting from the field while hitting only 22.6 percent from beyond the arc.

It's a loaded Friday night of basketball, with 12 games running, and the Hawks and Celtics will serve as the first game in the ESPN double-header, followed by the Houston Rockets taking on the Golden State Warriors. The Celtics are on a four-game winning streak, which includes the aforementioned game-winner from Green, and an overtime victory over the Utah Jazz. Can the Celtics keep plucking away even with the injuries they've sustained, or will the Hawks be the team getting a step closer to home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference?

Game time: 8 p.m. ET on ESPN

Odds: The Celtics are favored by five points.

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