“Never make predictions, especially about the future.” – Casey Stengel
NBA writers and media folk have no idea what to do with this series. In ESPN’s predictapalooza, the final tally for Boston-Atlanta was Celtics 11, Atlanta 10, with 14 of the 21 voters expecting a 7th game. One thing is for certain: the Hawks are playing their best basketball of the season, having won 15 of 19 games before dropping their final two of the regular season, which dropped them into the four-way-collision that is seeds 3-6 in the East. The last loss came to the deflated Wizards, who had expectations of competing for the third seed themselves before Bradley Beal’s knee became chronically cranky and before things unraveled. I think of that game as John Wall’s personal send-off to Millsap, Horford, and company. Of those 15 wins, only 4 could be considered mild surprises. The Hawks are great at beating the bottom half of the NBA. We knew this when they won 60 regular season games last year. They are fluid, well-oiled, etc. They know how to beat you and will beat you that way…if you can’t play defense.
They’ve made adjustments in the second half, ramping up their perimeter pressure, sending Millsap, Horford, and the long-limbed menace known as Kent Bazemore out to half-court on traps, cutting off passing lanes and driving angles. They’ve excelled at avoiding opponent fast-breaks. Teams have to work really hard for anything against the Hawks.
Enter Isaiah Thomas and Evan Turner, working really hard for penetration, and making trips to the foul line a premium. Stevens has to find ways to get Olynyk, Bradley and Crowder open looks. After the ankle injury, Crowder is having trouble creating on his own, with that slashing, no-stopping-me-unless-you-foul-me mentality that greased the Boston offense for the best stretches of their season.
If last year’s playoffs is any indication, there will be times Thomas struggles. a 5’9″ dynamo with incredible acrobatics and spins around the rim needs a few breaks against the best defenses. If the Celtics get Bazemore in foul trouble, that would be a start. Teague isn’t the best defender, and Turner should find some leaks in the mid-range, while Atlanta chases Boston off the three-point line.
Both teams finished 48-34. Both teams play with force, rapid passing, dribble hand-offs (Spurs-Hawks-Celtics-Blazers style) slicing, cutting, ball-movement-based offenses that shoot lots of three-pointers after dynamic point guards beat their defenders off the bounce. Both teams force turnovers by smothering opponents on the perimeter. Though he’d never come right out and say it, Brad Stevens modeled his team on some of the success of the 60-win Atlanta Hawks of 2014-15. Mike Budenholzer modeled his team on the the fluid ball-movement and cutting of the San Antonio Spurs. So in some ways, this match-up is an experiment. How do you defend your shadow? How do you create turnovers against teams that minimize turning it over? This series could easily come down to making a few threes or missing a few threes in each game.
Celtics x-factors on offense: Evan Turner and Marcus Smart creating offense, giving Thomas a break, and keeping Boston afloat when Isaiah is resting or having a tough game.
Celtics x-factors on defense: Can Crowder minimize Paul Millsap, who torched the Celtics all season? Millsap’s ability to maneuver through traffic and hit just enough threes to keep team’s honest makes him dangerous. Stevens may opt to give Millsap the three and take his chances by limiting the drive-and-dish. Boston needs to stay glued to Korver, who has regained his touch with increased health as the year has progressed. Atlanta’s electric whiz Dennis Schroder (once called “Baby Rondo”) is a whirling dervish with incredible speed and agility. Containing his drive is another priority.
One last word: It’s funny to me when the non-Celtics fans I know say they aren’t interested in this series. It’s bound to be full of close games, and both teams are fun to watch, play extremely hard, and are well-coached. I suppose if you’re into stardom, its harder to notice what makes a team cohesive. Instead, we get storylines focused on LeBron’s frustration with his teammates or scandals like Russell taping moron Nick Young’s locker room antics. How easily the masses are misled, while the non-celebrity NBA is so often ignored (Spurs fly under radar again).
Prediction: Celtics in 7. (How can I not?)