by DeMarco Williams

Atlanta’s Zaza Pachulia has opened a restaurant and appeared on CNN over the past four years. Still, the only thing most folks care to remember about the 6-11 titan from Tbilisi is the headbutt he put on Boston’s Kevin Garnett back in the ’08 Playoffs. The Hawks and Celtics have played mad times since then, but that highlight just won’t die. For TNT, it’s good TV. For the city of Atlanta, it’s a symbol of strength that pops up on the jumbotron whenever the mood hits.

But the Hawks aren’t coming into this ’12 series as the same scrappy lil’ guys who want to simply make another good impression on the big boys. If anything, these Hawks (40-26) are out to prove that they belong on that same second tier with Boston (39-27) on the NBA’s power ladder. The Cs won the season series 2-1, but the games were all very close. Had a rebound gone this way and a foul called that way, the series could have easily turned to the Birds’ favor.

The folks in Vegas who know that info but still choose to go with Boston in the matchup are doing so only because of the jerseys. Allen, Pierce and Rondo’s names still have more cache than Johnson, Teague and Williams’. But, folks, this ain’t 2008! Kevin Garnett is not walking through that locker roo—wait, yes he is. It’s just that the ice pack and limp are causing a delay in his strut.

Point Guard: Rajon Rondo vs Jeff Teague

The Hawks won’t come out and say it, but they would have loved more consistency from Teague this season. In last year’s Playoffs, the spunky PG gave DRose fits, defending well and scoring over 20 a few times. He had some moments this year, but overall, there were too many 8/4 snorefests to think he’ll explode now. Rondo won’t do much offensively either, of course, but his game-management skills are second to none. We all know about the League-leading 11.7 apg, but what should scare the Hawks is his ridiculous assist-to-turnover margin.

Advantage: Celtics

Shooting Guard: Avery Bradley/Ray Allen vs Kirk Hinrich

Ray Allen has been dealing with ankle injuries on and off since January. Thankfully for the Cs, Avery Bradley has eased the loss of the sharpshooter by having a coming-out April (eight games of 15+ more). Boston coach Doc Rivers does expect Allen to be a contributor somewhere in the series. The best way for Hinrich to contribute is by playing formidable D and hitting any open Js.

Advantage: Celtics

Forward: Paul Pierce vs Joe Johnson

Yeah, we’ve noticed the same thing you have. Paul has lost a few steps off the dribble. But give Doc credit. He’s given his future Hall of Famer lots of rest over the past few weeks. He’s going to have lots of spring for what could be his last hurrah in Beantown. As for Joe, he’s got no time to worry about Pierce’s stamina. He needs to make sure No-Show Joe gets lost on his way to the arena. In last year’s postseason, the $120-million man had 5- and 10-point stinkers. He may need security if he repeats that showing.

Advantage: Push

Power Forward: Brandon Bass vs Josh Smith

How Josh hasn’t been named an All-Star is one of the League’s bigger mysteries. How he’s re-channeled the slight into a beautifully balanced campaign (18/10/4) is beyond us too. And to think, he’s done all of this in the same paint decimated by Al Horford’s season-long absence and Pachulia’s recent ailments. Across the way is Bass. It’d be silly to expect the hard-working big to keep J-Smoove quiet. If Boston gets 10 and 6 out the 4-hole every night, they’ll be content.

Advantage: Hawks

Center: Kevin Garnett vs Jason Collins

What should have been an area for the Hawks to exploit has turned into one they’ll just try to get by in. With Big Al and ZaZa questionable, it’s gonna be a heavy dose of Jason “Twin” Collins and Ivan “9 to 5” Johnson. Those names won’t scare anybody, but Johnson’s April (Eastern Conference’s Rookie of the Month) should at least get KG’s attention. Playing with a renewed vigor for a few months now, Garnett won’t much care who’s defending him. The man wants another ring and he’ll be damned if Ivan, ZaZa or anyone else’s forehead tries to stop him.

Advantage: Celtics

Bench: Celtics vs Hawks

With most of the Hawks’ bench bigs thrust into major roles, it’s going to be up to the smaller guys (Jannero Pargo, Willie Green, Tracy McGrady, Marvin Williams) to energize the second wave. No reason why they can’t. It’s looking like Allen might anchor the C’s bench the first few contests. The team’s gonna need his points to cover other deficiencies—like the fact no one else on the pine is really worth mentioning here.

Advantage: Hawks

Prediction: Doc Rivers has managed the workload of his aging crew quite well. As for Atlanta coach Larry Drew, he’s been cool, calm and calculating in clogging up the Hawks’ frontcourt in an All-Star’s absence. Both sideline generals will be put to the test in this series. Emotions will be through the roof every night. But because the Hawks were able to gut out home-court advantage, they’ll win, likely ending the Big 3 era in Boston.

Hawks win 4-3.