With tip-off just hours away, let’s get down to brass tacks with this Boston-Atlanta playoff showdown.
The Hawks and Celtics are very similar teams in a few regards. They both share the ball, are well coached, show maximum effort, have strong fan-bases and boast top-tier defenses. Both teams are soft when it comes to rebounding and neither team is shooting the three as well as they’d like to.
The real differences in these teams lies in they’re physical makeup. In terms of scoring, the Celtics are guard heavy. Obviously with this Celtics roster, any guy could be the hero on any given night, which is evident from Tyler Zeller’s 26-point outing against the Bucks. But with that being said, Thomas, Bradley, Smart, and Turner (who can loosely be considered a guard) are usually Boston’s most impactful players on offense. On the opposing side, the Hawks duo of Al Horford and Paul Millsap do most of the heavy lifting. The key for both teams will be to play off each others strengths and weaknesses.
On defense, the Celtics are clearly overmatched down low. Millsap and Horford are going to score their buckets because they’re better than our bigs, plain and simple. So in order to win, the Celtics need to focus on stopping Jeff Teague. When he is able to score, it opens things up for everyone else on his team. Kyle Korver will get his open looks from three, Horford and Millsap will feast, and the game will turn into track meet as the Celtics race to match every Atlanta bucket. The C’s guards need to contain Teague and restrict his playmaking abilities. If they make it hard for him to get entry passes into his bigs and can limit his ability to attack the hoop, he’ll have a harder time finding open shooters. As good as Teague has been this season, the Celtics’ defense is just too good to let him beat them on his own.
On offense the Boston game plan should focus more on their bigs. Isaiah is going to score and the Hawks will likely accept that, much like the C’s will have to accept the fact that Millsap and Horford are going to score. But Thomas can’t do it alone and Bradley has looked shaky lately, so I’m putting the pressure on the big guys to help carry the offensive load with Thomas. While it’s important to get Bradley back in his groove, I’d like to see a bigger emphasis on pounding the paint. Get Sully and Amir Johnson on the low block early and often, this will make Atlanta’s big men labor on defense. Doing this will tire out Atlanta’s bigs so they have less energy to exert on offense and it will open up the floor for Thomas and company.
A major key to winning this series will be Jae Crowder’s health. Hopefully he can return to full strength as he’s looked a bit off since returning from his ankle injury. This team just isn’t the same without him at his best. They lose their best defensive wing player and they lose Crowder’s underrated shooting ability. I’ve never really been a believer in Crowder shooting the three, but I have a million times more faith in him than I do in Turner letting it fly from deep. And that’s not a knock against Turner. Love his game, but let’s face it, he should stick to the mid-range jumpers.
I’m going to let you all in on a little secret: Kelly Olynyk is the X-factor in this series. If the hesitant Kelly shows up to play, they’re relatively screwed. Not saying the Celts can’t win if he doesn’t play well, but if he does play well, no way Boston loses this series. When Olynyk actually appears to know where he is and what he should be doing, this team fires on all cylinders. Olynyk is the Celtics’ only big who can truly stretch the floor. Sure, Sullinger can hit an open three from time to time, but he makes the biggest impact when he patrols the paint. Olynyk, on the other hand, doesn’t have the back to the basket moves that Sullinger and Johnson have, but he is a pretty good shooter and posses the ability to put the ball on the floor and attack the basket. Unfortunately, he’s another guy that hasn’t looked his best down the stretch. So the Celtics will really need him to step it up and produce in order for them to win this series.
The Hawks are more experienced, their best players are probably better than our best players, and they have home-court advantage, but the Celtics are the hungrier team. They started out slow and ever since then they’ve had a tough time getting respect around the league. Then the C’s cranked the defense up a notch and started winning games, but that wasn’t enough either because they still didn’t have a true superstar. Even when Thomas made the All-Star game and put up numbers that were just as good if not better than most of the elite point guards in the league, they STILL never got the credit they deserved. They’ve heard the knocks against them all season, and now they’re here to take that respect they were never given. And if that wasn’t enough, Thomas knows he has something to prove to the Boston faithful after his lackluster performance in last year’s postseason. As if he needs another chip on his shoulder. All that being said, the Celtics take Game 1 in Atlanta and end up winning the series back home in Game 6.