By John Carroll
The Boston Celtics have had two completely different seasons: The one prior to the All-Star break, in which they went 15-17, and the one after the All-Star break, in which they went 24-10 and won the Atlantic Division. As a result, they received the No. 4 seed but not home-court advantage. That belongs to the Atlanta Hawks, who, despite being seeded one spot lower, finished with a better record overall.
The Celtics may or may not have what it takes to go the distance this year -- that it is yet to be seen -- but it is a fact that no one in the East wants to play them. As these playoffs begin, they are playing their best basketball of the season. If they can continue to get the terrific contributions from Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, and if Avery Bradley can handle the pressure of the playoffs, the C’s could easily dispatch of the Hawks.
The Hawks deserve a lot of credit for finishing in fifth place in the East with a record of 40-26. They lost Al Horford after only the 11th game of the 2011-12 season but Hawks earned home-court advantage with two big wins in their last two games of the regular season, against the Clippers and Mavericks.
Atlanta is only 8-8 against playoff teams since March 1, but it is also an enigmatic team. The Hawks have the talent to push this series to seven games, like they did in 2008 against the Celtics, but can this emotional and immature team that relies too much on one-on-one play beat the C's? With their shot selection and lack of defensive toughness, it would not surprise anyone if they got bounced here in the first round.
Boston Celtics Offense
• The Boston Celtics are only averaging 91.3 points per game during the regular season, which ranks 26th in the NBA. They are painful to watch at times with possessions that seam to grind to a complete halt. When everything is clicking they look terrific, but at other times you don’t know where their next basket is coming from.
• The Celtics have excellent shot selection and they create great shots for one another.This is why they are shooting 47.1 percent for the season, which ranks them fifth in the NBA.
• The Celtics are an unselfish team that thrives on making the extra pass. They are third in the NBA in assists.
• The C’s utilize the 3-point shot as a part of their offensive arsenal. They attempt 14.8 3-point attempts per game and knock down 36.8 percent from behind the 3-point line; this ranks them sixth in the NBA. They have the greatest 3 point shooter to ever play the game in Ray Allen, but it is questionable if he can contribute in this series.
• The Celtics are ranked 29th in the league in paint points only scoring 34.8 per game. It is imperative that the Celtics create easy points in this series. If Rondo can get into the paint and finish or find open men it will help the Celtics win this series.
• Even with the Hawks missing Horford and Zaza Pachulia the Celtics will have a difficult time hurting the Hawks on the glass. They are last in the league averaging only 7.7 offensive rebounds per game.
• Rajon Rondo is the offensive catalyst for the Celtics. The Celtics are at their best when Rondo is aggressive, driving the ball into the paint, and creating for himself and others. Rondo has had a terrific season for the Celtics; he leads the NBA with 11.6 assists per game.
• The Celtics will utilize the pick-and-roll to create movement, ball reversals and switches. The Hawks tend to switch pick-and-rolls and if they start a smaller lineup they may switch on all pick-and-rolls. If they do look for the Celtics to run side, middle and step-up pick-and-rolls to force the switch and then either post the mismatch or take the bigger defender off the dribble.
• The Celtics will attempt to get Pierce the ball in his sweet spots. When he gets the ball at the top of the key and at the elbow he is the most dangerous. When Paul has his jumper going he is extremely difficult to stop because you must get up into his air space and that is when he gets his defender up and puts it on the floor.
• Garnett has been spectacular offensively over the last month the season. However, the Celtics do not run plays specifically for him. He gets his shots on pick-and-pops or just off the block where he can turn and face up his defender. Garnett has had tremendous bounce in his step offensively this season and it has shown up positively in his shooting. Garnett has averaged 19.0 points versus the Hawks this season. In the games that the Celtics won, Garnett shot 54.0 percent from the field, in the games they lost he only shot 45.0 percent.
Atlanta Hawks Offense
• The Hawks' offense has struggled against the good defenses in the NBA and that is a very bad sign against the Celtics, who rank No. 1 in field goal percentage defense and No. 3 in points allowed per game.
• The Hawks are a high-assist team with 22.4 per game ranked eighth in the NBA and a low-turnover team with only 13.3 per game ranked fifth in the NBA.
• The Hawks will push the ball in transition with Jeff Teague and Joe Johnson. They are athletic and have several high-flyers in Josh Smith and Marvin Williams who can finish on the break. The Hawks are sixth in the NBA in fast break-points with 15.9 per game. They will need to be opportunistic on the break and get easy baskets in transition so they do not have face Boston’s stingy half-court defense every time down the court.
• Atlanta utilizes the 3-point shot as a major part of their offensive attack. They are the fifth-best 3-point shooting team in the NBA. The Hawks average 20.3 3 point attempts per game and shoot 36.9 percent from behind the line.
• With no legitimate center available look for Larry Drew to play small ball. He may insert Smith as his power forward/center and surround him with four 3-point shooters. This will force Boston’s hand defensively, space the court and may be an interesting strategy versus the Celtics' elite defense. If they can surround Smith with Marvin Williams, Kirk Hinrich, Johnson and Teague they can put a ton of pressure on the Celtics.
• The Hawks are a big isolation team getting the ball to Johnson and Smith and letting them go one-on-one against their opponents. Johnson can create his own shot at any time and when he gets on a roll he is unstoppable. Smith can be a monster mismatch, but he must be in attack mode for the Hawks to be successful. He cannot settle for contested jump shots if the Hawks are to beat the Celtics in four games.
• The Hawks will attack Bradley if he is matched up on Johnson. Bradley is 6-foot-2 and Johnson is almost 6-7. Look for Drew to slow down the pace of the game and pound it inside to Johnson in the mid-post.
• The Hawks will utilize numerous pick-and-rolls with Teague and Johnson. They will put Teague in pick and rolls with Smith, and Marvin Williams. They also like to run small, 1-to-2 and 1-to-3 pick-and-rolls to create switches for Johnson to take advantage of.
Rajon Rondo: Rondo is the one player that makes this team go. He leads the league in assists and over his last 10 games he is averaging 15.1 per game. Rondo needs to be aggressive from the start of this series, putting pressure on the Hawks by getting into the teeth of the defense and making plays. He has improved his field goal percentage this season to 44.8 percent for the season making him more difficult to lay off of in the half court.
Jeff Teague: The Hawks need Teague to play at a high level in this series against Rondo. He must be in attack mode the entire series and put pressure on the C’s. Teague needs to utilize his terrific speed in transition and in pick-and-rolls to get easy baskets for the Hawks. Teague averaged 12.5 points per game and 4.9 assists this season. He is developing into a key piece for this team and he must play well for the Hawks to defeat the Celtics.
Avery Bradley: Bradley has taken full advantage of his opportunities this season with the Celtics. With Ray Allen injured he has moved into the starting lineup and is averaging 34.2 minutes per game in the past 10 contests. In those 10 games he is averaging 16.7 points per game and is shooting 54 percent from the field. He is a terrific on-the-ball defender.
Kirk Hinrich: Hinrich has been slowed by an injury this season, playing in only 48 of the team's 66 games. He has averaged career-lows in points (6.5) and assists (2.7) per game. He plays off the ball with Teague and Joe Johnson doing much of the ball handling. His 3-point shooting numbers have dropped this season to 34.6 percent from his career of 37.8 percent.
Paul Pierce: This season he has logged 34.5 minutes and averaged 19.5 points per game. With Rondo being injured down the stretch, Pierce has taken over some of the ball handling and distributing duties, posting a career-high 14 assists against the Magic last week. They will isolate Pierce in the fourth quarter or put him into 1-to-3 pick-and-rolls to create switches to get Pierce matched up with a smaller defender. Pierce is a big-time shot maker who is not afraid of taking or making the last shot.
Joe Johnson: Johnson is a prolific scorer who has been the focal point of the Hawks offense since his arrival. He can create a shot for himself at any point in the shot clock. He is a mismatch for most defenders because of his ball-handling skills and height. The Hawks love to run isolations for Smith at the elbow or top of key, where he excels.
Brandon Bass: Bass has been a terrific pick-up by the Celtics in the off season. He is averaging 12.6 points per game and 6.1 rebounds during the regular season. He plays with energy and enthusiasm and is a perfect complement alongside Garnett. Bass is a scorer who can knock down the mid-range jump shot.
Marvin Williams: Williams has been an enigma since the day he was drafted. A role player, he does a little of everything but is not great at any one skill. He has shot the ball terrifically from the 3-point line this season at 38.9 percent. He has an opportunity with Horford and Pachulia out to get quality minutes in the playoffs. If he can perform on this stage he could help improve his image around the league as an underachever.
Kevin Garnett: Garnett has been terrific for the Celtics in the second half of the season. Since losing Jermaine O’Neal, Garnett has played the center position for Boston and has been largely responsible for the C’s second-half surge. Garnett has averaged 19.3 points per game and nine rebounds in the past ten games, while shooting 51 percent from the field.
Josh Smith: Josh Smith may get the call to defend the center position with Horford and Pachulia not available for this series. Which Smith will show up in the playoffs -- the talented forward with All-Star skills or the emotional, immature player that will melt under the pressure of the playoffs? Smith had a terrific regular season for the Hawks scoring 18.7 points and grabbing 9.6 rebounds per game. If Smith can attack the rim and get great shots for himself or teammates, the Hawks will be a tough out. If he settles for long 2-point shots and does not get to the free throw line (4.9 free throw attempts per game) the Hawks will struggle to win this series. The Hawks need consistency from Smith in order to beat the Celtics.
Ray Allen: Allen comes into this series banged up, having missed the past nine games. Allen’s numbers have dipped this season average to 14.2 points per game. If Rondo, Pierce and Garnett are scoring for the C’s it will open up shots for Allen. The Celtics will utilize him as a spot-up shooter or run him off multiple screening action.
Mickael Pietrus: Although Pietrus has struggled to stay on the court this season he could prove to be an important piece to the Celtics roster in the playoffs. Rivers may utilize him to defend Johnson in this series or LeBron James if the C’s advance and face the Heat. Pietrus can stretch the court and knock down open perimeter shots.
Keyon Dooling: Dooling has seen very limited minutes with the play and durability of Rondo.
Greg Stiemsma: He has been a pleasant surprise for the Celtics. He has proved to be a dependable frontcourt rebounder and defender. In limited minutes he has averaged 2.9 points, 3.2 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game
Sasha Pavlovic: If Allen cannot go at full tilt early in the playoffs Rivers could lean on Pavlovic for shooting. He can space the court and make open shots. He scored 16 points and shot 70.0 percent from the field earlier in the week versus the Heat in a meaningless game.
Al Horford: Horford has given mixed signals that he might be available in the playoffs. He has resumed contact drills after being out of the lineup with a torn pectoral muscle he suffered in the 11th game of the season. Horford would give the Hawks' offense a significant boost if he can play in this series.
Zaza Pachulia:Zaza has missed the past five games with a strained foot and he will not start in this series but will be able to play at some point. Pachulia has had a career year, averaging 7.8 points and 7.9 rebounds per game starting 46 games in place of Horford. The Hawks need Zaza in the lineup for his post defense, rebounding and toughness.
Willie Green: Willie has the green light coming off the bench for the Hawks. He provides instant offense to their second unit. Green has made the most of his opportunities this season. He is averaging 7.6 points per game.
Tracy McGrady: McGrady has been a pleasant surprise this season for the Hawks. Although he is only averaging 5.3 points per game, he has the talent to have a big impact in at least one game of this series.
Jannero Pargo: Pargo is a serviceable backup guard whose time will be limited in the playoffs.
Ivan Johnson: Johnson is a big, strong post player. Unfortunately he is also immature and may not be consistent enough to be relied on in the playoffs.
Jason Collins: Collins could be called on in this series if Horford and Pachulia can not go. At 7 feet, he will provide low-post defense, and rebounding.
Prediction: Boston in six