Friday, April 27, 2012

Celtics-Hawks Playoff Preview

A battle of the four and five seeds, perhaps the two most evenly matched teams (on paper) in the Eastern Conference.

The Hawks
Record: 40-26
Expected W-L: 41-25
Def Rating: 6th
Off Rating: 16th

For all their talent and raw athleticism, are perennial playoff disappointments.  They're always good enough to make the postseason, but never good enough to advance beyond the conference semis.  Their starting five is usually loaded but the bench is thin, and the team lacks a go-to scorer in crunch time.  Just because they pay Joe Johnson superstar money doesn't mean he is one, and most would agree that Josh Smith was actually the MVP of the team this year.  Atlanta is also sorely missing go-to scorers in the post, big bangers who can set up on the block and punish opposing defenses with interior scoring.  Jason Collins, who will likely start in lieu of Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia, is a black hole on offense. The Hawks were young and athletic enough to overcome these flaws and survive the lockout shortened season by outlasting their elder foes, but this advantage is diminshed by the off days in between playoff games.   Atlanta's offense has been average at best this year (they really missed Horford and Jamal Crawford--Tracy McGrady hasn't done much off the bench), but their defense rates among one of the best in the Association. The offense relies heavily on Smith and Johnson scoring 20 per night, so if Boston can shut one of them down the Hawks will struggle to put up points on the board.

Even so, second year head coach Larry Drew oversaw a nice improvement from a team that won 53.7 percent of its games last year to one that was victorious in 60.6 percent and finished the season strong by going 16-7 over their final 23 games.  Drew deserves some credit for sparking the streak by replacing Marvin Williams in the starting lineup with veteran Kirk Hinrich, a small roster shakeup that went a long way; Williams thrived in his new role coming off the bench and Hinrich provided more speed, experience and basketball IQ to the starting five.   The 23 year-old Jeff Teague has quietly developed into a capable starting point guard in his first season running the offense, and Josh Smith just posted career bests in points (18.8) and rebounds (9.6) per game.

The Hawks will be without Horford, still recovering from a torn left pectoral muscle. His replacement, Pachulia, had been churning out double-doubles in his stead before he sprained a ligament in his left foot. Zaza is out indefinitely and will miss the start of the playoffs, meaning Collins, Erick Dampier (returned last night against Dallas) and Ivan Johnson will see increased minutes, which is probably not a good thing for the Hawks.

The Celtics
Record: 39-27
Expected W-L: 39-27
Def Rating: 1st
Off Rating: 27th

Unlike in years past, Boston barreled into the postseason with a full head of steam.  Celtics fans had gotten used to seeing their C's burst out of the gates, dominate teams during the first half, then cruise into the playoffs as they rested regulars and tried to conserve energy.  Not so this year, when a sluggish start made a strong second half imperative.  Many gave up on the aging Big Three and suggested that Danny Ainge blow the team up, but he stayed the course and was rewarded when the Celtics put together a 24-10 roll after the All-Star Break. As a result, this team has gathered momentum over the past two months and seems to have gotten stronger as the season wore on, surprising given their advanced age.  The defense, sans Kendrick Perkins patrolling the paint, has been exceptional as always, but the offense is so bad that they have no margin for error.

This is a squad that has come together and finally found its identity.  Brandon Bass is as steady as they come with his midrange jumper and is providing the production everybody expected from Jeff Green (lost for the season after heart surgery).  Avery Bradley has filled in nicely for Ray Allen (out with a sore right ankle), proving himself to be a capable starting shooting guard who can play tight defense and knock down perimeter shots. Greg Stiemsma is piling up blocks like his name is Bill Russell, according to Tommy Heinsohn. Kevin Garnett (now playing a lot more center) and Paul Pierce look rejuvenated, and Mickael Pietrus, a key reserve, returned to action against Milwaukee last night and logged nearly 20 minutes of action.  Perhaps most importantly, the team's best player and NBA assist leader--mercurial point guard Rajon Rondo--is playing some of his best, most consistent ball of the season, having dished out ten or more dimes in 24 consecutive games now, a streak that runs back to March 11th.  He's the MVP of this team, and the Celtics will go only so far as Rondo can carry them.  The offense is one of the worst in the league, and it depends on Rondo penetrating into the lane, finding cutters for easy baskets and setting up his teammates for quality looks. 

Other notes:
-The Celtics start the series on the road; they were 15-18 away from the TD Garden this season.
-Boston won the season series, two games to one, and their lone loss came last Friday when Doc rested his starters, and even then Atlanta barely managed to squeak out a five point victory.
-Ray Allen will not practice today and is listed as questionable for Game 1 on Sunday.  Normally this news would be cause for concern, but Bradley has been so tremendous lately that I wouldn't mind seeing the 36 year-old take some time to mend his wounds
-The last time these two teams met in the playoffs was four years ago, when the Celtics were the number one seed and the up-and-coming Hawks were the eighth.  The series went seven games, with the home team winning each time, and Boston emerged victorious/went on to defeat Kobe Bryant's Lakers in the Finals.  Will history repeat itself?

My prediction; Celtics in five

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