- Chris Forsberg, Celtics reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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The Hawks, who had pushed Boston to the brink of elimination during the Celtics' march to an NBA title in 2008, were dominant in the fourth quarter of a 97-86 triumph, and some wondered if the young Hawks were growing up and if time was catching up with the aging Celtics.
As Boston coach Doc Rivers opined after that game: "When you've got a chance to beat a team on the road and you're playing well, everybody looks mature."
Have the Hawks (22-12) made the leap? They sure looked like championship contenders before stumbling through a recent four-game losing streak (Atlanta lost six of eight from Dec. 19-Jan. 4). The Hawks righted their ship with a 119-89 thrashing of the lowly New Jersey Nets on Wednesday.
Are the Celtics (25-8) battling Father Time? Riddled by injuries, Boston endured three straight losses out west spanning into the new year, but has put together back-to-back wins, including Wednesday's thrilling overtime triumph over the Heat.
Friday's game at Philips Arena should provide a few answers about the direction of both clubs.
Boston remains without the services of Kevin Garnett (hyperextended right knee), but he's far from the only one nicked up. Paul Pierce returned Wednesday after missing five games following two procedures to drain his knee for an infection, while Rajon Rondo rejoined to the starting lineup after a one-game absence due to a sore left hamstring.
What's more, Kendrick Perkins battled a bout of food poisoning and nearly missed the team flight to Miami, and Eddie House was left behind due to flu-like symptoms (he could join the team in time for Friday's game).
"The sum of our parts is what makes us great," said Celtics guard Ray Allen. "When someone goes down, someone else has to step up. Other guys have and will in the future. Anytime you lose a guy, you miss him and you feel the weight of it. We just hold down the fort until the injured guys get back."
Buoyed by the win in Boston, the Hawks won 11 of their first 13 games to start the season. Atlanta is just 11-10 since then, with their scoring dropping nearly four points per game during that span.
The key for the Hawks appears to be utilizing their youthful energy.
Atlanta is averaging nearly 17 more points per game in its wins (110.4-93.5) with its fast-break points per game nearly split in half in defeat (20.5-11.6).
The Hawks also thrive off the play of sixth man Jamal Crawford -- the featured addition to the Atlanta roster this past offseason. Crawford came off the bench to score 18 points in the first meeting with Boston and has led the Hawks in scoring 10 times this season.
Crawford is second in the league in scoring off the bench (New York's Al Harrington is first). The 6-foot-5 guard scored 29 points in 25 minutes in Wednesday's win over the Nets.
"You know, Jamal Crawford really got going," Pierce said following the first meeting. "Joe Johnson got going there at the start of the second half. We have to do a better job of just staying in front of our man, and I think team defense was initially good, but we got to play better one-on-one defense."
The Hawks outrebounded Boston 47-29 in that first meeting, including a 16-6 advantage in offensive rebounds, which helped them prevail despite the fact that the Celtics shot better overall from the floor (49.3-45.2 percent). Boston will also have to do a better job from beyond the arc, where it connected on only 1 of 15 3-point attempts.
Chris Forsberg is a roving reporter for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
While the Hawks have stumbled, they will be a good test for the banged-up Celtics.