This is the first time the Celtics and Hawks have met in the playoff since 2008, when an upstart Atlanta squad pushed the eventual-champion Celtics to seven games in the first round. That was the series that launched this era of Atlanta basketball, which is now seeing postseason action for a fifth straight season.
This is also the fifth straight postseason appearance for Boston, but of course the Celtics have competed on a whole different plane than the Hawks. For the most part, it seems like pundits are still seeing this matchup through that prism--that the Celtics are still knocking on championship's door, while Atlanta is still just hoping to win a series. Let's not forget, however, that it is Larry Drew's Hawks that have the home advantage in this series.
In any event, these are two teams whose stories began around the same time and which shared an opening chapter. Now the book may be closing on both squads, as currently constituted, and the loser of this series may well begin the process of re-invention, if not tearing down. The winner can fool themselves into thinking a long playoff run is possible, especially given the news about Derrick Rose yesterday in Chicago.
Drew has done an underrated job of keeping together a team that has played without Al Horford since early January. He's mixed and matched with the likes of Zaza Pachulia and Jason Collins at center, and still led Atlanta to home advantage in a first-round series. Pachulia has been out lately as well, and his availability for the Boston series is in question. So it's a good thing Drew will be taking on a Celtics squad that is starting a career forward in the pivot. Perhaps the absence of Atlanta's center can be endured just a bit longer.
The Celtics took two of three from Atlanta this season, though the overall point differential was dead even--each team scored 259 points. This promises to be a close and long series, no matter who actually gets out on the court.
WHEN BOSTON HAS THE BALL
Pace: 92.7 possessions per 48 minutes (22nd NBA)
BOSTON Offensive Rating: 98.9 points per 100 possessions (24th NBA)
ATLANTA Defensive Rating: 98.6 points per 100 possessions (6th NBA)
The Celtics' offense has been consistently poor all season, ranking 26th before the All-Star break and 23rd after it. This is an unbalanced team that wins with defense. Meanwhile, the formerly offense-heavy Hawks have become a top-10 defensive outfit even without Horford, one of the best interior defenders in the game. That's a nine-place jump from last season, and without their best defensive player. Indeed, Drew doesn't get enough credit for the job he's done.
The Celtics' poor offense is all the more amazing because they actually still shoot the ball pretty well. It's all of the other facets of scoring in which they fail. Boston ranked 10th in eFG% this season, but was in the bottom third in foul-drawing and turnover rate, and dead last in offensive rebounding. It's the third straight year that Doc Rivers has abandoned the offensive glass in favor of protecting the backcourt but this season, the Celtics could have used the extra opportunities.
Since the Celtics don't have a true center and its best offensive big men, Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass, are jump shooters, the Celtics get very few looks in the paint. They instead take the third-most shots from midrange, and shoot the league's best percentage from that zone. They also ranked seventh in the league in three-point percentage. Jump shooting is where the Celtics get their points.
Boston is also a great passing team, led by Rajon Rondo's 11.4 dimes per contest. This of course goes hand-in-hand with the good shooting. The offense is all about Rondo creating looks for Boston's shooters, and the big men setting good picks. The Celtics' Offensive Rating with Rondo on the floor is 101.5; without him it drops to 94.4. There are similar splits for the rest of the Big Four, with Kevin Garnett (+9.8), Paul Pierce (+7.0) and Ray Allen (+4.8) all having profound effects on the offensive efficiency. That's no surprise. This is a top-heavy, and we'll get plenty of the Big Four playing together for what may be their last run as a group.
Added to this mix is Avery Bradley, who has been starting in place of Allen for 18 of Boston's last 19 games. The second-year guard already has a reputation as a fierce on-ball defender, but he's scored 15.1 points per game since he entered the first unit and has hit 49 percent from the three-point line. His on-off splits on the offensive end have improved through the season and over those 19 contests, the Celtics' offense has been 3.8 points better with him on the floor. That makes him a key weapon for Rivers entering the postseason.
Atlanta's defensive on-off indicators aren't that stark for anybody. Drew has relied on a mix-and-match approach with his rotation, and he's gotten key contributions from his bench on both ends of the floor. Depth is a big advantage for the Hawks in this matchup. That the Hawks' defensive numbers hold up even with veteran reserves like Tracy McGrady, Jerry Stackhouse, Jannero Pargo and Vladimir Radmanovic are on the floor is a testament to just how much Atlanta's roster has bought into Drew's concepts of team defense.
The Celtics' key offensive play types are getting players open on off-ball screens and also cutting backdoor. No team has better efficiency numbers on shots off screens. The Hawks have been middle-of-the-pack against both sets, which is kind of surprising given that Atlanta's forte is defensive versatility. The Hawks' collective ability to fight through screens and call out switches will be essential to holding the Celtics down on the offensive end.
WHEN ATLANTA HAS THE BALL
Pace: 92.5 possessions per 48 minutes (23rd NBA)
ATLANTA Offensive Rating: 102.4 points per 100 possessions (15th NBA)
BOSTON Defensive Rating: 95.5 points per 100 possessions (2nd NBA)
It's not like the Hawks didn't miss Horford. He's only played 348 minutes, but in that time, no player has had more of an effect on the Hawks' net efficiency. They missed him more on offense than defense, with the attack taking a dip of 4.2 points per 100 possessions without their big man, who is one of the most skilled centers in the game. Without Horford around, the Hawks have reformed around a new offensive core of Josh Smith, Joe Johnson and Jeff Teague. All three of those players had double-digit effects on the Hawks' offensive efficiency.
The Celtics were another year older and facing their first full season with former basketball protector Kendrick Perkins. And they were once again one the league's elite defensive units. The key move of the season by Rivers was the move of Garnett to center in late February. After the All-Star break, which coincides roughly with that switch, Boston's 95.0 Defensive Rating was the best in the NBA.
Boston was second in contesting shots after the break, but the Celtics have always been good at that. They were also fourth in forcing turnovers, another annual strength. The Hawks' offense was the third-best shooting group in the league after the break, so this is a key battleground. Atlanta is middle of the pack when it comes to protecting the ball, so Teague and his counterparts are going to have to do a good job of avoiding turnovers.
Boston's lack of a starting shot-blocker didn't show up in the stats. The Celtics were near the top of the NBA in limiting percentages near the rim. And when they did need a shot-blocker, reserve Greg Steimsma emerged as a solid specialist, providing an on/off defensive boost of 5.2 points to go with a block rate (8.5 percent) that ranked second in the league to Serge Ibaka. That might not be a big factor in this series, however, because the Hawks are almost as much of a jump-shooting team as the Celtics. No team took more shots from the 20-24 foot range than Atlanta.
But that's in the halfcourt. The Hawks like to run, even though their pace factor is so low. Drew encourages selective running, and it's a key part of Atlanta's attack. The Hawks got the sixth-highest percentage of their points on fastbreaks in the league. Despite Rivers' preference for pulling guys back, the Celtics were just middle-of-the-pack against transition opportunities. Since the Celtics have a turnover-prone offense and the Hawks forced the sixth-highest percentage of turnovers in the league, Atlanta's ability to turn mistakes into easy offense is going to be a key part of the series. If it turns into a halfcourt slugfest and jump-shooting contest, the Hawks will lose.
This has the potential to be a seven-game series and in many respects, the Celtics' weaknesses play into Atlanta's strengths. There is the matter of the homecourt advantage, but that's often been a double-edged sword for the Hawks, who have had trouble creating a sustained buzz in a city full of transplants. The games in Atlanta may well feature a pro-Celtics crowd. In the end, it'll be the Celtics' veteran core that proves to be too much for an Atlanta team better constructed for the regular season. Besides, the Big Four can't go out like that, not in the first round.
BOSTON in 6
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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