For the first three games of the series, the Celtics saw only a partial version of the Atlanta Hawks. That version of the Hawks had ridden the improved play of Josh Smith, the consistency of Joe Johnson and a breakout campaign by Jeff Teague to the top half of the Eastern Conference playoff standings, but they were without their biggest core piece.
And we mean "biggest" literally.
Al Horford's excellence is not inherently obvious. The 6-foot-10 power forward, who plays out of position at center to allow Smith to man his natural four-spot, is a career 12-point, 9.5-rebound role player, according to the stat sheet. He missed all but 11 games this season after tearing his left chest muscle in early January, and although his return against the Celtics was rumored for weeks, it was hard to take seriously. How much damage could be done by a Hawk with one bad wing?
The longer the Celtics allow the series to drag on, though, the more of a problem Horford will become. He is getting better with every minute as he plays himself back into shape. Seconds into Game 4 on Sunday, in his first game action in more than three months, Horford got his left arm wrenched by Ray Allen while jumping for an errant pass. Less than a minute later, Horford had a layup attempt blocked.
By Tuesday in Game 5, Horford owned the paint. He led the Hawks with 19 points and added 11 rebounds. He blocked three shots. He was everything the Hawks were not in the first three games of the series: aggressive when he had to be, patient when he should have been and clutch when the Celtics threatened to make a run.
Smith and Johnson may be the Hawks' best players, but they are predictable to the point of being boring. Smith can be counted on to size up a smaller, less athletic defender and, after considering a dribble drive for a moment, hoist a 22-foot jump shot. Johnson will catch the ball several times a game with nine seconds left on the shot clock and simply pound the rock before putting up a contested jump shot.
But Horford — and now Teague — makes the Hawks far less predictable. He can post up to create a high-low post tandem with Smith or fade out for a 15-foot jumper off a Teague drive-and-kick. The Celtics struggled so much with the combination of Horford and Smith on Tuesday, head coach Doc Rivers turned to little-used reserve Ryan Hollins for 19 minutes. Hollins played rather well, notching five points, four rebounds and using four fouls, but the more time Horford and Smith spend on the court against Kevin Garnett and Hollins, Brandon Bass or Greg Stiemsma, the more likely the matchup down low tilts in Atlanta's favor.
The Celtics still hold the edge in the series. They are one win from advancing with two games to play, and one of those games is at home. We are told that no Celtics team has ever blown a 3-1 lead in a playoff series. These Celtics would be wise to finish this one off before Horford really gets his legs under him if they want to avoid making history.