Thank goodness, the Celtics were able to head into the playoffs on a high note. The past few games, specifically the ones against their playoff peers, had cast the legitimacy of the Celtics postseason aspirations into doubt. Poor performances against the Hawks and Hornets, as well as a terrible first half against the Miami Heat, stirred up the old views that the Celtics were nothing more than a regular-season team that would crumble in the playoffs.
Thank goodness, that second half against the Heat drove some of those concerns out of the zeitgeist, and allowed Boston to focus more on hopes for the next few games, instead of the dread of another early exit.
Now, by virtue of some unfortunate tie-breaker rules, the C's will have to deal with the balanced, well-coached Atlanta Hawks in the first round. This is not the best matchup we could have drawn out of the three possible teams we could have been slated to play, but there is certainly an opportunity to knock the Hawks off of their perch and advance to the second round.
In their losses to Atlanta this year, Boston has generally run into the same sorts of problems. As a result, if they can follow through on a few key points, they stand a good chance of moving on to the next round.
Defend the 3
The Hawks currently have 7 players who shoot better than 30% from beyond the three-point line, including 4 of their starters (hey there, Al Horford). As a club, they shoot 35% from beyond the arc. It is clear that they can do a great deal of damage from long range. Given the Celtics' recent propensity for losing their identity for minutes at a time, this ability to pile up points could prove disastrous. This portion of their game fueled two of their victories against Boston this season; they shot 12-24 and 17-33 from beyond the arc in those two games.
In order for the Celtics to be successful in this series, they'll need to make a point of chasing the Hawks (both back court and front court) off of the three point arc. Tenacity, and our guards distinct ability to fight through screens, will be crucial here. As a result, I expect to see more than a couple of lineups featuring the trio of Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley, and Evan Turner - all three of them have consistently shown that they are adept at fighting through screens to stick on their man.
Take Care of the Ball
There was one game in which the Hawks beat the Celtics that did not include Atlanta shooting the lights out. In the third matchup of the season, they shot a paltry 4-20 from long range. However, they won the turnover battle in that game, 21-12. Even if their long-range shots aren't falling, we've seen that the Hawks have the weapons to punish the Celtics for giving them extra shots.
In order for Boston to have a legitimate chance against Atlanta, they'll need to make every possession count. That means getting good shots, but more importantly, it means taking care of the ball. Isaiah Thomas and Evan Turner will need to make sure that they don't over-commit to their drives. The Celtics as a whole need to work to avoid the sloppy passing that plagued them in the first half against Miami. Passes need to be crisp and on time, and players will need to make sure they sight their lanes properly to prevent themselves from giving possessions away.
Rebound, Rebound, Rebound
If the Hawks have a weakness, it's their front court size. While they have been very successful against us this season, they have struggled with teams that rebound very well, like the Miami Heat. Al Horford and Paul Millsap are both very special players, in that they can do a lot of things very well. They have a great deal of versatility, which allows them to be successful against many types of players. With that being said, neither one of them is particularly big or strong for their position.
For us to be successful, the entire team is going to have to commit to crashing the boards. In particular, Jared Sullinger and Amir Johnson are going to have to pull down a lot of rebounds, ideally on both ends. Finishing possessions on defense and snagging extra possessions on offense will allow us to make up for our often streaky shooting, and keep the momentum on our side of the game.
Be True to Ourselves
Danny Ainge recently commented that the Celtics can be taken out of their game too easily. We saw that against the Heat, and against the Hornets. To put it bluntly, we do not have the luxury of trading half-court possessions. As much as I love our team, and I do, our half-court offense is very inconsistent, and relying on it for consistent point production is a trap that we cannot fall into.
The Celtics have become a very successful team this year by being tenacious on defense, generating turnovers, and pushing the ball. Scoring on the break, or on the secondary break, allows us to bypass the streaky shooting that can sometimes plague us across the board. It also jumpstarts our confidence, improving said shooting, and getting players to heat up with much less risk.
To beat the Hawks, our guards are going to have to get up into their back court and chip down on drivers and post players. Our big men are going to have to jump passing lanes and push the ball in the open court. Our whole team is going to have to transition from defensive rebounds into a secondary break as quickly as possible, instead of waiting for the defense to set up.
All four of these are things that we can do, and with the exception of rebounding, they're all things that we've become known for. The bottom line is, the entire Celtics roster is going to have to be tenacious in order to win this series. The pit bull and bar fight references of recent years come to mind.
If they keep their foot on the gas, Boston will come out of this series on top.