When the Celtics look in the mirror, they see the Atlanta Hawks looking back at them.
And that should make for an interesting first round series.
The Celtics and Hawks are alike in so many ways. Both teams are well coached. Brad Stevens has a system well suited to his team and the players have bought into it. Mike Budenholzer, the Hawks coach, is from the Greg Popovich coaching tree and has the Hawks play tough defense, with great ball movement on offense.
Both teams do not have the superstar go-to guy. There are plenty of very good players on both teams but no true star. Both teams are deep and have ten man rotations.
In the playoffs, the best players usually determine the outcome of the series. The Hawks best players are Paul Millsap, Al Horford, and Jeff Teague. The Celtics counter with Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, and I would say right now Avery Bradley.
The Hawks went to the Eastern Conference finals last year and are battled tested. They had a slow start this season but they finished 15-6 in the last two months of the season. The Celtics have not played their best basketball down the stretch, but the playoffs are a new season.
Most experts are picking the Hawks to win this series. But here are five ways the Celtics can beat the Hawks.
1. Win at least one of the first two games
The Hawks have home court advantage and it’s crucial for the Celtics to at least gain a split down south. Coming back to Boston down 0-2 against a solid Hawks team spells disaster. There’s no way the Celtics win four of the next five if that happens. The Hawks went 27-14 at home this season, good but not great.
2. Defend the three-point line
The Hawks love to shoot the three ball. Thirty-four percent of their shots come from threes. They move the ball around well and plenty of times that results in an open three. Kyle Korver is the player the Celtics have to stop. He did not have a good season but has played much better of late. Korver is one of the best three point shooters in the game. The Hawks love Teague on dribble penetration where he drives and kicks out to a shooter for a wide open look. The Celtics perimeter defense has to be good in this series.
3. Control the defensive glass
The bad news is that the Celtics are a poor defensive rebounding team. They give up far too many offensive rebounds and second chance points. The good news is that the Hawks are small up front and not a great rebounding team. This needs to be a total team effort. Their bigs Jared Sullinger and Amir Johnson need to do their jobs, but also their wing players Jae crowder and Evan Turner have to help out on the glass.
4. Isaiah Thomas needs to win the matchup with Jeff Teague
This will be the biggest matchup of the series. Teague started the year slowly but has played great in their last 25 games. He is a Celtic killer, who always plays well against the Green. He is a threat to drive, shoot and distribute off the dribble. Thomas is the key to the Celtics offense with his scoring and ability to create for others. One way teams have made life difficult for Isaiah is making him work on the defensive end, tiring him out so his offense suffers. Teague will make Thomas work. Isaiah has to score but do it in an efficient manner. Last year in the playoffs Cleveland played him tough and his shooting percentage decreased dramatically. Isaiah has been the Celtics best player this season. He needs to play like that in this series.
5. Don’t let Paul Millsap beat you
The 6-foot-8-inch forward is the Hawks best player and scorer. In four games this year against the Celtics, he averaged 22.5 points a game, five above his season average. He is capable of scoring in bunches and the Celtics have to make him work. He is athletic, can take it to the rim, but also has a nice mid-range game. This will be Jae Crowder’s man and Crowder has to play good defense on him.
So who wins this series? My heart says the Celtics, but my head says the Hawks. Their best players are better than the Celtics best players. They shoot the ball better than Boston and have home court advantage.
My prediction: Hawks in six.