NBA Playoffs Preview: Celtics vs. Hawks
Mark my words: the first-round matchup between the Boston Celtics and the Atlanta Hawks is going to be a great series.
Why? Because Boston and Atlanta are two teams that really encompass the meaning of the word "team."
Under head coach Mike Budenholzer -- a former assistant to San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich -- the Hawks have become a very well-rounded team, much like the Spurs. They share the basketball, score from inside and out, play solid defense, and get much needed bench contributions when they need it.
The Celtics are a lot like the Hawks (and Spurs) in their own right. Head coach Brad Stevens didn't exactly graduate from the School of Pop, but he's clearly become one of the best coaches in the Association a mere three years into his NBA career. A master of the game, Stevens has inherited a roster chock-full of unique talent and has turned it into a team founded on suffocating defense, uptempo offense, and balanced scoring.
The question is whether experience or youth will win out.
Led by a 46-year-old with 20 years of NBA experience, the Hawks' roster is much like that of their head coach: experienced. Their average age of 28.1 years old makes them the seventh-oldest team in the NBA, which basically tells you that, while the Hawks aren't nearly as old as the Spurs (average age of 31.6 years), they do have their fair share of playoff experience. In fact, their starting five have started a combined 162 postseason games.
The Celtics, much like their 39-year-old, baby-faced leader, have youth on their sides. Boston is the fourth-youngest team in the entire league and the youngest team in the playoffs, averaging 24.6 years of age per player. The oldest player in their starting five is Amir Johnson, who is just 28 years old. No other starter was born before 1989 -- and, oh, they don't have more than 30 playoff starts among them.
It's crazy that these teams are so similar yet their NBA paths are at such different stages. The Hawks' door is beginning to close, and the Celtics' looks to be opening from this point forward. Who will take another step toward their NBA destiny?
Atlanta Hawks (4)
Championship Odds: 3.26%
Boston Celtics (5)
Championship Odds: 1.92%
Regular Season Series - Hawks 3, Celtics 1
At a glance, these teams are pretty evenly matched. Boston won the first matchup between the two squads back in November, but as the regular season rolled on, Atlanta had Boston's number. The Hawks won the next three by an average of 14.3 points, capping the season series off with a 118-107 victory at home this past Saturday.
One noticeable trend to keep in mind from the regular season series is that all but one game was played at a Pace of 99.3 possessions or higher. Surprisingly, the Hawks' only loss to the Celtics came in the lone game in which the tempo was slower -- 94.3 possessions per 48 minutes to be exact. This is really conspicuous because Boston actually plays at the NBA's fourth-fastest Pace while the Hawks play at the league's eighth-fastest Pace.
One thing that's not as surprising is the fact that the Hawks completely dominated the Celtics inside. While the Celtics shot a combined 44.2% from two-point range, the Hawks converted on 54.9% of their shots from within the three-point line. The Celtics were forced to do most of their damage from the outside as Al Horford and Paul Millsap patrolled the painted area. On the other end, the combination of Jared Sullinger, Amir Johnson and Kelly Olynyk just couldn't slow down the versatile Atlanta bigs.
How the Hawks Can Win
If it's not broke don't fix it, right? In order to win, the Hawks need to continue to attack the painted area. They must take advantage of the Celtics' poor inside defense and avoid the strong perimeter defense of Avery Bradley and company. Boston has proven that they can turn over Atlanta in bunches, as they've forced the Hawks into 16.25 turnovers per game -- 1.25 above their already shaky season average of 15 -- so why not just avoid as many of those costly turnovers as possible?
In addition to attacking inside and avoiding turnovers, Atlanta must get some production from their bench. The Celtics' Marcus Smart, Evan Turner and Kelly Olynyk average a combined 29.6 points per game primarily off of the bench this season. Dennis Schroder is the Hawks' only player with more than 10 points per game off the bench, but Thabo Sefolosha, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Mike Scott all have the ability to make their own contributions. In order to neutralize Boston's depth advantage, the Hawks will have to get bench production.
Hawks Player to Watch - Kent Bazemore
We all know Kent Bazemore isn't the most consistent player in the world. After all, he just followed up games of 17, 21 and 23 points with a 4-point stinker in an embarrassing loss at Washington in the season finale. But whether he scores or not, Bazemore is a key to this series.
He's been really good against the Celtics this year, with averages of 16.0 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists in three games. If Bazemore can bring it offensively, that could mean more opening for Jeff Teague and the others. More importantly, Bazemore needs to be better than he has been on the defensive end of the floor. In his three games against Boston this year, Bazemore's Defensive Rating of 105 leaves a lot to be desired. And with Jae Crowder back in the mix after scoring 13 points a night ago, that could spell trouble for Atlanta unless Bazemore locks down.
How the Celtics Can Win
If at all possible, the Celtics have to do a better job at contesting inside shots. They can't allow Horford and Millsap to shoot the combined 53.6% they shot against them in the regular season. Doing so, the duo combined for 36.8 points per game -- that can't happen again if Boston hopes to make it past the first round.
In order to prevent this from happening, and in order to find some success elsewhere, it is imperative that Brad Stevens experiments with some lineups (in Games 1 and 2, particularly). Why? Well, because quite frankly the starting lineup of Isaiah Thomas, Bradley, Crowder, Johnson and Sullinger has been really ineffective against the Hawks. The lineup has earned a Plus/Minus of -6.3 while allowing 58.9% shooting from the floor.
Sooner rather than later, Boston has to try and force their will by going small. Whether they start out the game with their bigs is irrelevant, but if they transition to a lineup like Thomas, Smart, Crowder, Johnson, Sullinger they could find some success. That lineup was a +5 in 15.9 minutes together versus Atlanta. Or maybe small ball is the way to go with a big and Thomas, Smart or Turner, Bradley and Crowder moving the ball at a quicker pace and simply trying to outscore the Hawks.
Either way, something has to change from the norm for the Celtics to get different results than they did from this year's regular season's matchups.
Celtics Player to Watch - Avery Bradley
I'm aware that I suggested a lineup absent Bradley and that, in the lone win against the Hawks this year, Bradley didn't play, but his superior off-ball defense could be the key to eliminating three-point specialist Kyle Korver from this series and the Hawks from the playoffs.
If you saw Bradley's defense on Stephen Curry a week or so ago, you can see why his defensive positioning can be such a big influence on the outcome of a game. That's just what Bradley has done all season. He has allowed only 1.1 three-point makes on 3.4 attempts per game when defending this season. Last year in the playoffs, Korver got up 7.9 attempts, making 2.8 per game. It is a noticeable difference between Korver's attempts and how little Bradley gives up by suffocating opposing offensive players. If Bradley gets the best of the matchup, it could all but eliminate Atlanta's perimeter shooting game.
After all is said and done, the Celtics' perimeter offense and defense will prove too much for the Hawks. Bradley will shutdown Korver, which will leave Millsap and Horford to carry too much of the scoring load.
The Celtics' bigs will struggle in Game 1, but the boys from Bean Town steal Game 2 in Atlanta utilizing small ball lineups. They'll go on to win each of the next three games at TD Garden -- albeit by slim margins -- setting up a likely matchup with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in Round 2, where we give them a 17.75% chance of making the conference finals.
According to our algorithms: Hawks are 56.81% favorites.
My final prediction: Celtics in 6.