It seems that every game against a halfway decent conference opponent at this point of the year comes with the label "playoff preview." The Celtics have engaged in four of those so-called statement games in the past week, going 3-1 against the Bulls, Pacers, 76ers and Heat, even though it would take all sorts of seeding acrobatics for the C's to meet any of them in the first round.
Now comes a matchup that finally, truly pits the Celtics against a team they are at least likely to meet in the postseason. The Hawks are the fifth seed, currently matched up as the first-round opponent of the Celtics, and visit the TD Garden on Wednesday for what can accurately be called a playoff preview.
It is a big game for the Celtics (33-24) from the perspective of staying comfortably ahead of the Sixers in the Atlantic Division race, and for the Hawks (34-23), who are trying to stay ahead of Orlando and possibly catch Indiana for a top-four seed.
But for the Celtics, who are coming off a win in Miami on Tuesday, the game will not be more than a brief home respite amid five road games. Putting any more weight than that on Wednesday's outcome would be misguided, considering the Hawks will have had three days of rest.
"You can't gauge individual matchups for the playoffs," coach Doc Rivers said prior to the Celtics' current stretch of seven games in nine days. "You don't know how a team's going to look when you play them in the playoffs, because they'll come in rested and ready, and that's going to be a completely different team than what you played during the regular season."
It can be easy to roll your eyes when Kevin Garnett or another of the Celtics veterans remark that they take the entire season "one game at a time." If there were ever a season in which that cliché applied, though, it is this one. With the endless back-to-backs and regular stretches of four games in five days, an opponent can change completely from one night to the next depending on fatigue, injuries or simple rotation adjustments.
The Celtics are Example A. Avery Bradley played fewer than 10 minutes, missing the only shot he took and finishing scoreless, the last time the Hawks saw Boston. Bradley will start and play upwards of 30 minutes on Wednesday. Likewise, Mickael Pietrus contributed nine points and six rebounds off the bench in their last meeting, and he will miss Wednesday's game as he continues his recovery from a concussion. By the time the playoffs arrive, the Celtics expect to have Pietrus back in the lineup and maybe even starting.
The Celtics may use Wednesday's game to familiarize themselves with some of Atlanta's sets, or to brush up on Josh Smith and Joe Johnson's tendencies. As far as predicting how a best-of-seven playoff series will go, however, this will be little more than a warm-up.