The Atlanta Hawks will begin their playoff quest on Saturday night, at Philips Arena, against the Boston Celtics. The two teams share quite a few similarities: both share a 48-33 record, both teams have players who are under appreciated throughout the league in Paul Millsap and Jae Crowder (who, in my personal opinion, should’ve been Boston’s All-Star representative), and both teams have excellent coaches in Brad Stevens and Mike Budenholzer who play similar styles of basketball.
The Hawks won the season series 3-1, their only loss coming on November 13th — the one game Mike Budenholzer was not with the team, due to personal reasons. Let’s have a look at the season series stats between the two teams.
A couple of interesting things here.
The Hawks have had no problem scoring against the Celtics. An average of 110.3 points against the Celtics in four games is a concern for the Celtics in their preparation. The Hawks shooting 50% from the field and 40% from three is also a problem, the Celtics will have to make things more difficult for the Hawks if they want to stick around in these games.
I didn’t add the offensive rebounding numbers for the Celtics (10.8 per game against the Hawks, by the way), but it’ll be interesting to see how Atlanta deals with Johnson, Sullinger, and Crowder on the glass. The Hawks only average 1.5 less second chance points than the Celtics in the season series, so I didn’t see that aspect of the series being that important.
So, there are the season series stats for your viewing pleasure. But what about everything else? What are the keys to this series?
Paul Millsap and Al Horford
The Celtics have no answer for the versatility of Al Horford and Paul Millsap. Those guys can literally do anything on the offensive end: Spin moves, post up, face up, mid-range, move the ball, shoot the three-pointer, and put the ball on the floor — so versatile. And, on the other end, the Celtics don’t really have bigs with a lot of offensive game — the occasional Jared Sullinger mid-range shot, perhaps — to give players with the defensive abilities of Millsap and Horford any sort of real trouble. Which means they can cheat on defense, to a degree, and concentrate on boxing out players like Amir Johnson (who will create a challenge for Millsap and Horford on the offensive glass), and challenging guard penetration, challenging Isaiah Thomas at the rim.
While the Celtics were able to, somewhat, contain Al Horford’s scoring in the season series (14.3 PPG, 7 RPG, 5 APG), they have had no answer for Paul Millsap. In the season series, Millsap averaged 22.5 PPG on 57.6% shooting from the field (and 42.9% from three), 10.3 RPG, 3 APG, 1.3 SPG, and 1.5 BPG. Those are type of stats that make you think about double teaming a guy. If that happens, it’ll open up the floor for the Hawks on the offensive end to do the things that they love to do — make cuts, move the ball, and create open shot/three-point shot opportunities.
The Celtics will have their hands full defending Millsap and Horford, the big question is can they contain them? This is Boston’s biggest concern of the series by far.
Slowing down Isaiah Thomas and the point guard matchup
The Hawks have one huge advantage in this series. If they can limit Isaiah Thomas’ production, who else is going to score for this Celtics team? Who is going to step up? Is Marcus Smart going to make four threes a game, every game? Is Avery Bradley going to explode for 32? Is Jae Crowder going to score over 20 every game? It’s pretty unlikely, which means if the Hawks can just slow down Thomas (which they have done a decent job of doing, 38.3% shooting against the Hawks) they give themselves a great chance to win most of these games.
The Hawks have a good idea how to slow down Thomas, as April 9th’s fixture showed when Thomas scored just 16 points on 6-of-19 shooting. Brad Stevens will have to figure out either how to free Thomas of Atlanta’s defense, or figure out how to get others to step up if he’s not shooting well.
The point guard matchup of Teague and Thomas is going to be a very fun one to watch. Both guards are lightning quick, both in the open floor and off the dribble, and both can shoot the rock from outside (season averages of 40% for Teague and 35% for Thomas).
However, it’s defensively where the two will truly set themselves apart from each other in this series, and Teague has the advantage. There are very, very few point guards who can stick with Teague off of the dribble. His first step is so lethal, and before you can even blink you’ve already lost him. Thomas has never been known as a defensive stud, and he won’t be able to create the same problems for Teague on the defensive end as Teague will create for Thomas. He is able to get by Thomas quite easily.
Now, the Celtics will probably hide Thomas on Korver and let Bradley guard Teague. The problem with doing that, is who picks up Bazemore and Korver? Thomas will have to pick up one of those guys if Stevens decides that Bradley is guarding Teague, but here lies another problem. You can’t stick Thomas on Korver. Thomas is 5’9 with short arms, and Korver is 6’7 — he’ll never be able to properly contest any three Korver puts up, and you can’t let Korver have freebies in the playoffs. And Bazemore’s game isn’t much more different than Teague’s — loves to drive, and can shoot the three. So that’s also going to be a very tough cover for Thomas.
Whoever Thomas finds himself guarding, the Hawks should put him in pick and roll situations often. I really think this would stretch the Boston defense and create switches where either Thomas has Millsap or Horford, or Teague/Schröder has Amir Johnson or Jared Sullinger — all situations that the Hawks can take advantage of.
Trey Kerby of NBA TV’s ‘The Starters’ said “the coaching is going to be awesome, we’re going to see a lot of different adjustments, the way teams are covering, a lot of cool plays out of timeouts…” and I agree with that. It is going to be a lot of fun seeing how both coaches adjust to each other. We got to see a snippet of that in their April 9th meeting.
These are two of the best coaches in the Eastern Conference, who learn off of each other. Brad Stevens has said he has “..stolen more from Budenholzer than a lot of people. I love the way he runs his stuff and the sets he runs at the end of games.” That’s a testament to how good Mike Budenholzer is as a coach.
It’ll be a series of adjustments between the two coaches, and that’s going to be very fun to watch develop. How often will Stevens throw out the monster defensive lineup of Bradley, Smart, Crowder lineup? Will Bud unleash Teague and Schröder at the same time so that Thomas has no where to hide? How does he stop Thomas, how does Stevens slow down Millsap? From a coaching stand point, it’s going to be so much fun to watch.
Jae Crowder’s health
Jae Crowder suffered an ankle injury back in March, and made his return as the regular season began to wind down. Per Jay King of MassLive.com, Crowder’s ankle is still not 100% healthy, but he’s going to have to roll with what he has got.
How much will this injury affect this series?
Well, it has been affecting his production. Over his last six games he’s averaging 12.7 points on 36.4% shooting from the field and 23% from downtown. His +/- rating has slipped too. His average +/- rating is plus- 2.9, but in those final six games his +/- rating has been minus+ 2. His defensive rating for the season stands at 101.4, his net rating 4.5, and a PIE (player impact estimate) rating of 10.3. In those final six games, however, those numbers all dropped — 105.7 defensive rating, -2.5 net rating, and 7.3 PIE.
He’s probably going to be guarding Kyle Korver (at least to begin the game before playing some power forward), who is known for his non-stop off-ball movement. If you have an ankle injury and you’re chasing Kyle Korver around a basketball floor for an extended period of time, that may not end well for Crowder. It’ll be interesting to see, if he’s matched with Bazemore, if the Hawks try a few Bazemore penetration plays to test how well Crowder can keep up with him off of the dribble. See how healthy that ankle really is.
Crowder is very important to the success of the Celtics and if that ankle isn’t healthy and is affecting his play (which the stats are in favor of), then the Celtics are already facing an uphill battle from the get-go.