Hawks-Celtics Could Become NBA’s Next Featured Rivalry

Apr 9, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) knocks the ball away from Atlanta Hawks guard Dennis Schroder (17) in the first quarter of their game at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 9, 2016; Atlanta, GA, USA; Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas (4) knocks the ball away from Atlanta Hawks guard Dennis Schroder (17) in the first quarter of their game at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports /

After a drama-surrounded decision by Al Horford to join the Celtics, Atlanta and Boston appear ready to evolve from lingering friction to full-fledged rivals.

The Hawks enter the 2016-17 season with an opportunity to become a part of a featured NBA rivalry for the first time in their near five-decade history. The only established feud the Hawks have ever engaged in has been an on-and-off friction with the Celtics beginning in the 80’s, when Dominique Wilkins and Larry Bird used to compete to see who could put up the gaudiest numbers on the stat-sheet. However, even in those days when the ‘rivalry’ was at its peak, the Hawks were always the kid brother to the Celtics who were contenders for the championship just about every season.

In the 80’s, the featured rivalry in the NBA was the Celtics and the Lakers, more specifically, it was Larry Bird versus Magic Johnson. So while the Celtics were the Hawks’ most cutthroat adversary, the Hawks to the Celtics were more-or-less an afterthought. Throughout the passing decades of NBA basketball, each littered with torrid rivalries, the Hawks have never had a heated enough strife with another franchise to make the headlines.

Nowadays, fans find themselves hoping for a heated rivalry that includes genuine dislike between the involved players to emerge. The Western Conference Finals series between the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Golden State Warriors appeared to be setting the table for a big-time rivalry between the two best squads in the West, but those speculations were immediately squashed when Kevin Durant swapped sides to join the Warriors. After a nail-biting NBA Finals between the Cavaliers and the Warriors that included some extracurricular activity between Draymond Green and LeBron James, Green admitted the two were friends off the court. In a time when fans complain about the lack of animosity between opposing players and teams, Al Horford‘s offseason decision to move from Atlanta to Boston could finally push the two squads over the edge and give the fans a genuine bitter rivalry that they are looking for.

To recap, it wasn’t just Horford’s decision to leave that made Hawks fans upset; the real bitterness came when Al Horford’s father claimed that Horford found Boston more desirable because of their more engaged fanbase.

Hawks fans felt slighted by the remark, which came as a surprise because Horford was consistently grateful to the fans during his nine years in Atlanta.

Furthermore, Hawks fans were not too keen of the Horford departure because it put the Hawks franchise in an awkward position with Paul Millsap. Even after signing Dwight Howard, the Hawks assumed that they had the best bargaining chip in the Horford free agency sweepstakes because they could offer him a desirable fifth-year on his new contract, and Horford had expressed interest in returning to Atlanta after the Hawks’ season ended. The Hawks riskily suggested to be shopping Paul Millsap, as their clear preference was to play Horford at the power forward spot, making Millsap expendable.

When Horford put pen-to-paper on a four-year contract with Boston, Millsap was immediately pulled off of the trading block and became untouchable. In the end, the Hawks fans and front office appear to be overjoyed with their new frontcourt pairing of Millsap and Howard, but it is unclear whether Millsap felt alienated by the club that seemingly preferred Horford.

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All of this comes on the heels of perhaps some carry-over tension from the Hawks-Celtics first round playoff series last April. The Hawks beat the Celtics in six games of a hard-fought series that included some foul-play by both Boston’s

Isaiah Thomas

and Atlanta’s

Dennis Schroder


In the first quarter of the third game, Thomas, most likely fed up with Schroder’s air-tight defense, swung his arm while stationary, making contact with the head of the passing Schroder. This incident should’ve immediately disqualified Thomas from the game and subjected him to a one-game suspension based on NBA Flagrant Foul rules, however the referees did not notice.

On the very next play, Schroder, obviously seeking any sort of revenge, knocked Thomas to the floor with a hard collision as Thomas was coming off of a screen. Both players were visibly upset with each other and with the officiators as they were given Technical Foul calls. Later in the game, Schroder received a Flagrant 1 call for coming down on the head of Thomas after jumping on a pump-fake.

The series heated up further when the NBA was given a chance to review the unseen cheap-shot by Thomas after the game and decided to hand out no suspensions. Schroder sent out a tweet complaining about the officiating when the decision was made, although he later deleted the Tweet.

As the clock wound down to the final seconds of game six, Thomas delivered one final verbal shot of the series to Schroder and said “we’ll meet you in the back,” as his team was walking off the court. After the final horn sounded, Schroder made sure to express to the referees exactly how he felt about how the whole series was handled.

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This season, if there is any remaining beef between Schroder and Thomas, there should be even more opportunity for them to go at each other. With the departure of

Jeff Teague

to Indiana, Schroder is now set to be the Hawks’ starting point guard and will be directly matched up with Thomas when Atlanta plays Boston four times during the regular season.

Boston, hungry to become a contender again, and Atlanta, going in a new direction, could see themselves in direct competition with each other, both vying to be the biggest threat to Cleveland’s reign in the East. The tone will be set when the two squads meet for the first time next season, particularly if the game is in Atlanta, as the fans will make sure make their presence felt by the returning Horford.

From a fan’s perspective, the ideal scenario would be that the distaste between the Hawks and the Celtics continues to grow throughout the regular season, then the teams meet in the playoffs for the second straight year. A series between the two, with their seasons and their pride on the line, would almost certainly erupt into a full-on rivalry, currently absent between any two of the top teams in the league.

Next: Who Might The Hawks Trade In 2016-17?