NBA 1st Round Preview: Boston-Atlanta

The Boston Celtics started the season slow, but closed on an up note and won their fifth straight Atlantic Division title. The Celts were 17-17 at the end of February before getting into rhythm, winning 21 of their last 31 going into Thursday’s meaningless finale against Milwaukee and securing homecourt advantage for the first round of the NBA playoffs. The Atlanta Hawks, on the other hand, were 16-6 at the end of January, but wasn’t able to elevate themselves into the top four with a 23-17 finish to the schedule. The Celtics and Hawks meet in the 4-5 bracket spot in the Eastern Conference. Are they two ships passing in the night or will the start of the postseason disrupt the trends of the last couple months? The SportsNotebook previews the Boston-Atlanta series…

These teams are very similar. Both play at a deliberate pace and neither are particularly efficient on the offensive end, nor does either one rebound the ball. Before you wonder how exactly they got into decent bracket position, we’ll point out that each team plays lockdown defense.

Boston’s aging Big Three of Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett looked their age (average 35) for much of the season, but the last two months have looked like they’re ready to throw a stirring challenge in the face of Father Time. Pierce averaged 20 ppg despite showing up from the lockout out of shape. Garnett’s 16 points/8 rebounds line obscures that he’s played his best basketball down the stretch. Allen has been nursing a sore ankle, but still chips in 14 a night and knocks down 45 percent of his shots from behind the three-point line. Directing the vets is 26-year-old Rajon Rondo, averaging a league-best 11 assists per game and one of the positive byproducts to come from Allen’s ankle injury is the emergence of Avery Bradley. Just 21 years old, Bradley hits 50 percent from the floor—though he’s not a three-point threat—and gives head coach Doc Rivers a spark coming off the bench. Power forward is a weak spot where Brandon Bass averages 12 ppg, but his rebounding is mediocre and at 6’8” can be a matchup problem for the Celtics against bigger teams.

Atlanta’s success is built around the outside-inside combo of Joe Johnson and Josh Smith. Johnson, who goes 6’7” at the two-guard spot kicks in 19 points a night and does it with efficient shooting, 45 percent from the floor. Smith is a 19/9 man underneath and has shotblocking ability to boot. The point guard position is in respectable hands with Jeff Teague, while Marvin Williams is serviceable at small forward, averaging 10/5 a night. It’s down low that’s an injury-riddled mess. The Hawks’ main center is Al Horford, who went out with a chest injury after just 11 games. He was replaced by Zaza Pachulia who is battling a foot injury and wasn’t all that productive when he’s healthy. Horford announced he’s going to make a go of it and try and play in both tonight’s tuneup regular season finale against Dallas and then in the series with the Celtics. The only other player of note is guard Kirk Hinrich who does nothing noteworthy.

The lack of depth is apparent in reviewing both of these teams and will clearly be a big hindrance to the ability of either to knock off #1 seed Chicago should that be the matchup in the second round. For this series it’s a wash. The play of Horford is the big X-factor. If he can contribute, even if it’s just rebounding, he can take an area that’s currently a weakness for both sides and put it in Atlanta’s column. Combine that with Johnson and Smith and Atlanta could win this series.

More realistically, the Atlanta offense is going to be too one-dimensional to be consistent against the Boston defense. Smith will have to get his points on put-backs of offensive rebounds and Johnson will have to shoulder a huge load. On the other opposite side of the floor, Rondo gives the Celts a creativity that Teague can’t match and Allen, Pierce and Garnett can all hit jumpers, while Bradley is easily the best bench player in this series. Finally, we have to take into account something that only the NBA brings to our attention and that’s what star players are going to get the benefit of the doubt in close games. From the perspective of marquee value for a franchise and individual star power that’s clearly Boston.

Atlanta will have to win this series decisively if they’re going to do it, and I don’t think they’ll even do it straight up. As a Celtics fan I might seeing the world through green-colored glasses right now (especially since the Bruins’ elimination has me terrified of spending the spring alone with the Red Sox bullpen), but I believe even an objective observer would concede that it’s realistic to expect the Celtics to defend their home floor without exception and sneak a win out in Atlanta in the middle sequence, which means this ends in five. (4/28, Editor’s Note: I am in error on homecourt advantage. While the NBA puts Boston at the #4 spot on the bracket, Atlanta has the better record, so even though they are listed at #5, they get homecourt. For the series prediction, I think it means the Celts still split on the road to open, win out at home in the middle, but Atlanta takes Game 5 down south. The C’s wrap it up in Game 6).