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CelticsBlog writers' playoff preview: Celtics vs. Hawks

Neither team has a star and both rely on sharing the ball and defense. After a 1-3 regular season record against the Hawks, the Celtics look to steal a playoff series from the team that they're most often compared to.

Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

This is going to be a dogfight.  Most playoff previews have this 4-5 matchup as the most competitive in the first round.  The Celtics and Hawks are so evenly matched that experts have it going at least 6 games and it's a coin flip with who eventually takes the series.  The staff here at CelticsBlog took a crack at predicting the outcome and even we can't come up with a consensus:

Jeff Clark

Quick take: I'm an optimist and I know how good this team can be when they are locked in and focused. On the other hand, I have a ton of respect for the Hawks players and coach. This is going to be close, but I'm betting on Stevens coming up with something that pushes us over the top.

MVP: Evan Turner - The Hawks are good at limiting fast breaks so if we are going to win this, we're going to need to create offense in the half court. Outside of Isaiah Thomas (the obvious MVP pick), the guy that can get things going is Turner. I could see him hitting a game winner at the buzzer.

X-factor: Marcus Smart - He's a competitor to the core and the playoffs is where you need guys like that. I could see him swinging a game or two purely based on hustle and effort plays.

Random SWAG: Jared Sullinger will average a double double. The Hawks aren't a very good rebounding club and that's Sully's superpower. I could see him getting a few second chance points for us and contributing to a few quick outlet passes that turn into transition points.

Series Prediction: Celtics in 7


Quick take: The results of this series all depend on which Celtics team shows up for each game. If it is the team that played the first half against the Heat then it may be a very short series. If it is the team that played the second half vs the Heat, then Celtics in 6. They win one of the first 2 in Atlanta and then win the next 3 at home.

MVP: Evan Turner - All season long, Evan has come up big for the Celtics, especially in the 4th quarters. His versatility makes him a tough cover for Atlanta's smaller guards. If Evan can get it going, I think he can be the difference maker for the Celtics.

X-factor: Defense - Both teams pride themselves on playing tough defense. Recently, the Celtics have let their defense slip and we saw them finally getting back to playing their tough team defense in the second half vs the heat. The x-factor in this series will be the which team plays the toughest defense. Defense wins championships (and series).

Random SWAG: This is a tough one. I'm going to guess that Kelly Olynyk averages double figures off the bench.

Series Prediction: Celtics in 6

Wes Howard

Quick Take: I see the Celtics making use of that second half against the Heat. I don't mean that they'll have the proverbial "momentum", but they've certainly rediscovered the importance of hustle, particularly on the boards, from a team-wide perspective. If they can crash the boards in this series the same way that they did in the second half against Miami, they'll be in a great position to steal a game in Atlanta.

MVP: Isaiah Thomas - In the postseason, the pace is going to slow down, and each possession is going to be more valuable. IT is more capable than any other member of the team (other than maybe Evan Turner) of creating his own shot in the half-court set. Given the sometimes streaky nature of his shooting, I could see this postseason as either casting doubt on or validating the All-Star season that he has had. With a previous trip to the playoffs under his belt, my money is on the little guy rising to the occasion.

X-factor: Avery Bradley - The Celtics go to Bradley early in the first quarter in the majority of their games. If he can knock down those early jumpers, it'll set a great tone for the rest of the game. This is compounded when you throw in the tenacity that he showed on the boards against Miami - maybe a new wrinkle in his game?

Random SWAG: Evan Turner leads a come-from-behind victory with a 10-point fourth quarter. He's been on a tear recently, and Boston has allowed itself to give away early leads. Mark it down, ET will spark a run that nets Boston a win in this series.

Series Prediction: Celtics in 7

Sean Penney

Quick take: I don't like the idea of having to win a Game 7 on the road, so if Boston is going to win this series they'll have to do it in 6. The C's need to come away with at least of split in the first two games in Atlanta to open the series because it's asking an awful lot of a young team that lacks much postseason experience to climb out of an 0-2 hole. Boston was swept in the first-round last year, but all they need is that first win to get on a role.

MVP: Isaiah Thomas may be the obvious pick, but Atlanta defends point guards as well as anyone, so I'll go with Jae Crowder. He doesn't need to lead the team in scoring to be effective, but he emerged this season as a viable secondary option on offense. His versatility enables the Celtics to go small, which they did often the last time they played Atlanta.

X-factor: Evan Turner. He's got ice water in his veins and won't shy away from the big moments. If the Celtics need to get a basket late in a tight game, Turner is fearless enough to step up to take the shot on the postseason stage.

Random SWAG: Atlanta is one of the worst rebounding teams in the league, while Jared Sullinger led the Celtics in rebounding by a comfortable margin. Yet the last time these teams met, coach Stevens went with a small-ball lineup that limited Sully to a mere 11 minutes. Will the Celtics stick with that plan or use Sullinger's greatest strength to attack one of Atlanta's few weaknesses?

Series Prediction: Celtics in 6

Tim MacLean

Quick Take: The Hawks are a very good team but they aren't a group that should strike fear in the hearts of Celtics fans. Jeff Teague has been good of late but is spotty; Kyle Korver hasn't been shooting the ball very well at all this year; Kent Bazemore is hit or miss; and I think the Celtics are good enough defensively to handle both Paul Millsap and Al Horford. It's going to come down to how well Boston defends.

MVP: Jae Crowder. Isaiah Thomas is probably the popular answer but it's clear Crowder is the heart and soul of this basketball team. He doesn't score all the points, but he pours in his fair share of buckets and he does everything else at or above an average level. His intensity sets the tone for the Celtics and as he goes defensively, I think the rest of the team will follow.

X-factor: Agree with the Evan Turner pick. He's been really good all year for the most part but will that carry over into the postseason? I think so. The Hawks don't have any players as good as Turner on their bench and he should be able to control the game against Atlanta's second-unit.

Random SWAG: Terry Rozier will impact one or more of these games in some form or fashion, be it a solid game on the boards or a good outing defensively. I think he'll play more than fans expect in this series.

Series Prediction: Celtics in 6

Bobby Manning

Quick Take: Atlanta is tough. They're well coached, have shooters at just about every position, and Paul Millsap is easily the most underrated forward in the NBA as seen again with how he dismantled the C's Saturday night. I wanted nothing to do with this team but now that they're here the Celtics need to step up and face them head-on which I'm convinced they will because Atlanta doesn't win anything. It will come down to winning the turnover battle and taking advantage of the rebounding advantage the Celts could hold on to if Jared Sullinger and Amir Johnson bring everything they have in them. As it has been all season, the Celtics success will be predicated with how well they can hold their own defensively for long stretches of time as they did early in the ATL loss and in the comeback against Miami Monday.

MVP: Jae Crowder. We can talk about Isaiah Thomas all day long through sundown and he deserves it. He's having the best Celtics season I've seen since the team's run to the Finals in 2010. He means everything to this team offensively but it takes more than one in the postseason. When the C's were at their peak winning 14 straight home games earlier this season Crowder was there every step of the way succeeding with Isaiah. Brad Stevens said it best, what they missed most when he was gone was his pure ability to just get buckets which however simple it sounds is the key to postseason success. Thomas can create all the offensive opportunities in the world but the team needs someone to step up and big moments and just bury big shots like Paul Pierce did back in the day, that has to be Crowder. It's been sad to see him struggle to get back into the mix these last few weeks because the team will need his presence on both ends to win this series. No way around it.

X-Factor: Back to my theme of getting buckets, when you look back before his injury Kelly Olynyk was about as sure a bet as the team had when it came to shooting. Last year our playoff memory of Olynyk was him ripping Kevin Love's arm out, this year I want it to be him splashing shots all over the court against Atlanta. On Saturday the Hawks exposed the Celts bigs on the perimeter by getting an astonishing five 3's from Millsap and Al Horford certainly has shooting ability as well. Olynyk is capable of this as well but he needs to unload. In the regular season making the extra pass is great but in the playoffs players need to step up and hit tough shots to steal games. K.O has all the talent in the world to hit shots for the team when they need them but it comes down to his willingness to fire. We've never seen him truly throw up a high volume of shots and his effectiveness this season makes me want to see him become a significant contributor to the team's offense in their pursuit of buckets vs. Atlanta.

Random SWAG: I'll admit I was wrong about Evan Turner from day one. He has become a crucial contributor in both production and in crafting the team's confident mindset that they can beat anybody. But my judgement of his year will weigh heavily on his transition to the playoffs. The bench success hinges on his ability to make plays like he did during the regular season. Against Cleveland he got off the ball, was isolated on the perimeter, and taken completely out of games. When that happens he become a detriment to the team. As I say with Olynyk, their strides with the Celtics have been awesome but they need to step up and assert themselves against the best competition that is now coming their way, there's no way around it.

Series Prediction: Celtics in 6


Quick take: Atlanta advances, but Boston gains a ton of respect. The Hawks were the best defensive team after the All Star break and the Celtics are the worst shooting team in the Eastern Conference playoffs. That's a recipe for disaster. Boston will however keep it close. They steal a game on the road, lose inexplicably at home, and in the end, demonstrate enough in the post-season to be an attractive free agent destination this summer.

MVP: Amir Johnson. We know what we're going to get from Thomas and Crowder (or at least hope we're going to get), but somebody is going to have to step up and be the difference maker to win games in the playoffs. In the loss to Atlanta a week ago, Johnson finished with an efficient 14 & 8 with four blocks; he was active defensively and finished well around the rim. The Hawks' defense is really good at keying in on opposing teams playmakers, but if Amir can find open areas to drive out of the pick-and-roll and find enough space to get off that baby hook, he could be effective enough to neutralize Al Horford.

X-factor: Jonas Jerebko. What makes Atlanta so good in the front court is their collective ability to play above the break on offense and switch everything defensively. The brunt of the responsibility in stopping guys like Paul Millsap will fall on Jae Crowder when he sees his minutes at the 4 and 5, but JJ is going to have to step up when Brad Stevens decides to go small. If Jerebko can switch onto smaller, quicker guards on defense and hit a couple of threes, that could be the difference in a close game and ultimately the series.

Random SWAG: Al Horford is a Celtic in July. Because of a grueling seven game series with Boston, Atlanta loses to Cleveland in 5, opts for a rebuild, and decides to not bring back the 30-year-old center. After seeing how hard the Celtics play and seeing first hand their weaknesses in the paint, Horford signs a 1 + 1 with the Celtics at 12:01 am on the first day of free agency.  Hawks might take the series, but the Celtics win the long game.

Series prediction: Hawks in 7

Kevin O'Connor

Quick take: The Celtics are the third-worst three-point shooting team in the NBA going against the NBA's second-best defense, so it's not an ideal match-up. Danny Ainge recently said the Celtics get taken out of their game too easily and the Hawks are a team that has done that consistently. It'll be a competitive series, but ultimately the Celtics won't have enough juice, especially because of the injuries to Jae Crowder and Isaiah Thomas.

MVP: Paul Millsap averaged 22.5 points per game on a 62.7 eFG percentage in four games this season against the Celtics. I don't see that changing unless he cools off shooting threes.

X-factor: There are two primary X-factors. The Celtics are 23-11 when Avery Bradley shoots 35 percent or better from three-point range, so it'll be key for Bradley -- and his teammates -- to catch fire this series. The Hawks are also one of the worst defensive rebounding teams in the NBA, so Jared Sullinger will need to lead the charge in that department.

Random SWAG: R.J. Hunter gets key minutes down the stretch of at least one game because the Celtics will be desperate for spacing and shooting, and they'll win it.

Series Prediction: Hawks in 7

Ryan Sharry

Quick take: The numbers and home-court advantage might favor the Hawks, but this Celtics team has surpassed expectations all year. Isaiah Thomas will be the best player in the series and lead to Celts to the second round.

MVP: Isaiah Thomas. Crowder may be the heart but Isaiah is without question the MVP of this team. Put a replacement level point guard on the Celts and they don't make the playoffs. The Hawks are great defensively, especially on point guards, and it'll be up to Isaiah to have an MVP type series for the Celtics to win - and I'm confident he will.

X-factor: Brad Stevens. Coach Bud does a good job in Atlanta but the president elect is on another level. Stevens was at his best at Butler in the postseason and he'll be at it again this year.

Random SWAG: Jae Crowder starts at the 4 in at least one game and multiple times to start the second half. Small ball will be a huge factor in the Celts winning this series.

Series Prediction: Celtics in 6

Jeff Nooney

Quick take: Boston's defense has slipped some since the All-Star break. Even with Crowder back, facing the shooting and excellent front court duo of the Hawks will be tough. Atlanta also has the best transition D in the NBA, which takes away a strength of the Celtics. The team effort level and wizardry of Stevens will keep it close, but Atlanta comes out with the win.

MVP: Al Horford. He's been pretty quiet against the Celtics this season, but I think he's due for a big series. With any luck, the next time he plays in Boston he'll be wearing green.

X-factor: Jared Sullinger. Sully needs to dominate the boards, because the Celtics will need every extra possession they can get. Taking advantage of the Hawks' weakness in this area could be huge.

Random SWAG: Marcus Smart will be the first Celtic since Rondo to get a triple double in the playoffs.

Series Prediction: Hawks in 7

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