Celtics Adding Pieces Just As Hawks, Rest of Eastern Conference Seem to Be Crumbling Under Weight of Injuries

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Celtics Adding Pieces Just As Hawks, Rest of Eastern Conference Seem to Be Crumbling Under Weight of InjuriesBOSTON — Jeff Teague looked around the visiting locker room at the TD Garden prior to Game 3. To his left, Josh Smith was wrapping up an interview with a gaggle of reporters in which he confirmed he would miss that night's game with a left knee injury. Straight ahead, center Al Horford received treatment on the left pectoral muscle that has held him out since January. And in one corner, Zaza Pachulia wore a shirt and tie, rather than shorts and sneakers, as the energetic big man sat down again with a sprained foot.

"It seems like we're dropping like flies in here," Teague said.

If only the guard knew. Late in the second quarter of the game, Tracy McGrady had to be helped off the court after turning his right ankle. Although McGrady returned in the second half, his near-injury was another scary moment for a team that can ill afford to lose any more players.

Still, even without three of their top post players, the Hawks pushed the Celtics into overtime before falling 90-84 on Friday. They trail Boston 2-1 in the best-of-seven series, joining a growing list of Eastern Conference playoff teams fighting just to stay healthy.

The Bulls are without Derrick Rose, and Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson may be lost as well. The Magic entered the playoffs without Dwight Howard and won a tight Game 1 over the Indiana Pacers, but that matchup has not looked competitive since that first game. The Knicks might be fine as long as they don't punch any fire extinguisher cases.

The assorted maladies have supposedly opened up an easy opportunity for the Miami Heat to coast to the NBA Finals, but the battered Hawks played as though they were not yet ready to concede this season.

"We've got three key bigs unable to play right now, but that's neither here nor there," said Hawks swingman Joe Johnson, who scored a game-high 29 points and added eight rebounds in the defeat. "We still had a great chance to win this game."

The Celtics are one of the few teams currently gaining reinforcements. Ray Allen returned to the TD Garden parquet for the first time in almost a month on Friday, scoring 13 points off the bench. For most of the season, Celtics head coach Doc Rivers has patched together a rotation of overworked veterans and role players to make up for a devastating run of injuries.

Rivers knows what Hawks coach Larry Drew is going through, and Rivers anticipated the Hawks having to become as creative with their rotations as he has needed to be at times. Atlanta used an unconventional lineup of McGrady at power forward and Jason Collins at center surrounded by perimeter players Teague, Johnson and Willie Green. Drew went to that unit for eight minutes on Friday, and it was actually fairly effective. The Hawks outscored the Celtics by two points with that group on the court, which was actually better than two of Atlanta's more conventional units of two guards, two forwards and a center.

"I give them a lot of credit," Rivers said. "They're undermanned. We anticipated all the different lineups. We knew they were going to go small, but it still was quirky and it bothered us a little bit. They just fought."

When the series began, some observers wondered if the Celtics had made the right decision resting their players in the closing weeks of the season at the expense of home-court advantage. Rivers said repeatedly that he valued rest over home court, and the Hawks' predicament is proving Rivers' fear that any injury can befall any player at any time.

The Celtics may finally be getting their legs back just when everyone else's legs are failing them. The Hawks know this better than most.

Have a question for Ben Watanabe? Send it to him via Twitter at @BenjeeBallgame or send it here.

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