With Game 1 of the Hawks-Celtics series fast approaching, all 5 SDS staff members answer 5 crucial Hawks questions.
1) Who will be the best Hawks player on the floor in this series?
Daniel Christian (SDS Co-Editor/ Lead Blogger): If you were asking whom the best player on the Hawks currently is, I’d say Josh Smith, but that’s not the question. Smith has struggled against Boston in the two games they’ve played their starters, going a combined 13-39 from the field, mostly while being covered by Garnett. Joe Johnson, on the other hand, has had no such issues. He’s shown that he can score over, through, and around the vaunted young wing defender, Avery Bradley. He’s also repeatedly displayed throughout his career that he can take Paul Pierce. The Hawks will go as Joe goes in this series.
David Menze (SDS Co-Editor/ Lead Blogger): Josh Smith. He has to be in order for the Hawks to advance to the next round. Smith is having his best season in his career thus far, averaging 19 points and 10 rebounds per game, and must continue his steady output because with Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia likely out for the series, Smith remains the only viable front-line threat.
Bo Churney (SDS Contributing Writer): Joe Johnson. He’s been sensational lately and his defense has been very underrated this year. I think how well he shoots from three will be one of the big determinants in this series.
Brad Rowland (SDS Contributing Writer): Josh Smith. This has more to do with the fact that Joe Johnson has to deal with Avery Bradley for the entire series than anything, but Josh has been the best player all season for the Hawks, and I believe that will continue here. The potential match-up with Kevin Garnett is a curious one because we don’t know what the rotations will look like on either side (with Zaza questionable for the Hawks, and Doc Rivers not showing his hand yet for Boston), but I can see Josh posting a 22-point, 10-rebound, 2-block per night type of line for the series, and we will collectively cross our fingers that he remembers to stop taking jump shots.
Wesley Morton (SDS Contributing Writer): It has to be Josh Smith. He affects the game in so many ways, but most importantly with the Hawks’ lack of centers, he needs to provide weak side help and rim protection. Offensively, he excels at finishing in transition, but it will be key to see how much he stays on the low block where he’s been very effective this year.
2) 2) What is the most important thing the Hawks need to do in order to win?
Christian: Take and make three pointers. Boston has the staunchest 3-point defense in the NBA, but the Hawks have been blazing of late, shooting 38% (70-185) as a team over the last 8 games. Boston shut down Atlanta’s bench production and three-point shooting in the 88-86 overtime loss. We were right there going 2-20 from deep with only 13 bench points on the road. If we tighten the screws, we’ll be in good shape.
Menze: Closeout games. Boston has a wealth of post-season experience and won a two-point game in overtime against Atlanta the second time the teams squared off. Both teams match up well with one another and I can see every game coming down to the wire. The Hawks can’t take any lead for granted, must utilize the home-court advantage and K.O the Celtics when they have the chance.
Churney: Stay away from iso-ball. You’re not going to beat the Celtics by going one-on-one every offensive possession, so you might as well not even try that. Hawks must have a plethora of passing and high-post initiated plays if they want to win this series.
Rowland: Win the rebounding battle. Boston finished 28th in the league in rebound margin at -4.4 per game, and while the Hawks are also in the bottom third (at number 20), I believe it’s key for the Hawks to exploit the Celtics’ biggest weakness. I’d like to see the Hawks attack the offensive glass more than they usually do (posting the 26th best off. rebounding rate in the league even with Zaza and Horford’s numbers included), but it’s imperative that Atlanta maximizes possessions in this grind-it-out series.
Morton: Stopping Rondo penetration is a lot easier said than done, as he had 33 assists combined in the two games he played against the Hawks this season. However, the burden is not entirely Jeff Teague’s. It takes a team commitment to sliding over once he gets deep into the paint and it might be a good idea to occasionally send double teams at him after crossing halfcourt to the get the ball out of his hands.
3) What will be the biggest obstacle the Hawks will need to overcome in order to win?
Christian: Limiting Boston’s amount of open midrange jumpers, which starts with stopping Rondo’s penetration. The image of Brandon Bass and Kevin Garnett making open 15-footer after 15-footer is engraved in my mind after that 88-86 loss. It’s so hard to stop Rondo from getting into the lane, preventing him from generating offense in whichever way he pleases. When the defense collapses, he knows where to put the ball. If the Hawks can either A) at least slow Rondo’s penetration or B) close out on the shots Rondo creates to, at the very minimum, increase the degree of difficulty, then the Hawks should be in every single game.
Menze: Depth in the low-block. We know Al Horford is going to miss at least the first round of the playoffs as he still recovering from left pectoral surgery and Zaza Pachulia will miss at least the first couple of games with a foot injury, as a result 11-year veteran Jason Collins will be the starting center. That means the only two real big-men off the bench now for the Hawks are 15-year veteran Erick Dampier and rookie Ivan Johnson. Dampier averages 0.1ppg while Johnson averages 6.4ppg this season. Majority of the weight will fall on Smith and the rookie power forward to produce points so not only do they have to log a lot of minutes, they also have to stay out of foul trouble and have an efficient shooting night from the floor.
Churney: Injuries, obviously. Horford’s out, Zaza may be out, and Jason Collins will likely get a lot of meaningful minutes as a result; that’s a lot to overcome, even if the Hawks have already done it throughout the season.
Rowland: Boston’s 3-point defense. Boston led the league in 3-point percentage defense at just over 30% on the year, and with the gaping hole in the middle for the Hawks in the absence of Horford (and possibly Pachulia), the three ball could be the great equalizer. The Hawks made 37% of their threes on the season, and while this number was greatly helped by some above-average shooting years from Willie Green, Marvin Williams, etc., it will likely be necessary to make closer to 37% (or higher) than Boston’s typical baseline of 30%. Oh, and while we’re here, shot selection is paramount in this category, and the Hawks would benefit greatly from some discretion, with Josh Smith as the chief culprit.
Morton: Themselves. It sounds crazy, but when the Hawks are playing at full capacity and full potential, few teams if any can beat them in a seven game series. They have played extremely well at times even after the loss of Al Horford. The core of the team is in their peak years, they are deep enough to replace any injuries or foul situations that might arise, and when the Hawks are playing stout defense and forcing turnovers, few teams can keep up. The problem is that they have a tendency to stop ball movement and to become lax on defense, letting opponents get to the rim at will. It has just been about finding that consistency over the course of the season.
4) What is the 1-on-1 matchup you’re most looking forward to in the series?
Christian: There are four extremely interesting matchups in this series, but one stands out above the rest. The intriguing ones are Teague-Rondo, Johnson-Pierce, and Marvin Williams-Pierce (Willians will likely spend the majority of the games covering Pierce), but the one I can’t get out of my head is the Josh Smith-KG matchup. Smith and KG effectively neutralize each other, which the Hawks can’t have happen. If Smith does in fact dominate this matchup, then the Hawks win in six games, but with the way Garnett defends, it’s hard to imagine him consistently doing so. Of course, Smoove will have to hold his own on the defensive side of the ball, too. The more Smoove on KG and the less Ivan Johnson on KG– the better. Or can I switch my pick to Garnett-Pachulia, if not for sheer entertainment purposes? Headbutts! “Nothing Easy!”
Menze: Rajon Rondo vs. Jeff Teague. Rondo posted his sixth triple-double of the season in the overtime win against the Hawks, dishing out 20 assists in the game, and will certainly be the best player on the floor for Boston. Teague is showing signs of stepping up to the next level as a point guard in terms of defending and scoring, as he’s averaging just over 20ppg in the last three contests but needs to be more productive as a facilitator. Look for Teague to be aggressive and penetrate the middle to get Rando on his heels to try and manufacture easy buckets in the paint.
Churney: Smoove vs KG. Not only is this the most entertaining to watch, it is probably the key to the series for both teams. If Smoove allows KG to punk him and completely frustrate him, then the Celtics win the series, easily. If Josh can play with confidence, I think Atlanta wins.
Rowland: Joe Johnson vs. Paul Pierce. In the past, I’m not sure that this match-up would’ve been the match-up at all, but with Larry Drew’s shift to more three-guard lineups and the possible absence of Ray Allen, this match-up becomes magnified. In each playoff run (with the exception of last year, which was nearly stagnant), Joe Johnson’s point production has dropped off from the regular season to the playoffs, and his shooting numbers, assist numbers, and turnover numbers all trend in the negative direction come playoff time. In contrast, Pierce is virtually the same player statistically during the regular season that he’s been in the playoffs, and I can name 4 or 5 big-time Paul Pierce playoff moments off the top of my head. I believe that it’s crucial that Joe Johnson plays to a near-draw (or hopefully better) with Pierce, and that if it is clear that Pierce wins this matchup decisively, the Hawks are in deep trouble.
Morton: For me, it’s the two faces of the franchises, Joe Johnson and Paul Pierce. They have similar games in that they can find ways to put the ball in the bucket in one-on-one situations. I could see a few of the games coming down to a last second shot, and undoubtedly the ball will be in their hands.
5) Who do you have winning the series and in how many games?
Christian: These teams are—in a distorted way—mirror images of each other. Not exactly, but close enough to make a reference. Having said that, they’re both experienced, but one is significantly younger than the other. While this is about as big a coaching mismatch as you can have, experienced youth will prevail over experienced age, if only because of fresher and bouncier legs, along with home court advantage.
Menze: Hawks in 6
Churney: Hawks in 7. I think this series will be extremely dependent on home court. Guess who has it?
Rowland: Celtics in 6. In pure Doc Rivers fashion, I can see the Celtics openly pining for a split in Atlanta, then the teams holding serve the rest of the way on their home floors until Boston lands the crushing blow in Game 6. I do believe that injury concerns could be huge in this series, as the Hawks are certainly better equipped to win this series if Zaza Pachulia is providing even 80% of his normal production (vs. the steady diet of Collins and Ivan playing out of position), whereas Boston becomes an even bigger favorite to win this series if Ray Allen is Ray Allen. I can’t in good conscience pick against the team with a) the better coach, and b) the trio of stars (Pierce, Rondo, Garnett) that I trust more. Could the Hawks win this series if a few things go right? Absolutely. But my money would go on the Celtics in 6 games.
Morton: It’ll be a hard fought series like the Miami and the Milwaukee series of past years, but I think the age and lack of depth for Boston will shine through, especially if Ray Allen’s nagging ankle injury worsens. Hawks in seven.