Boston Celtics: 66-16, 1st seed
Atlanta Hawks: 37-45, 8th seed
Head-to-Head: Boston swept season series 3-0
It’s not like the Boston Celtics needed any further motivation heading into the postseason.
After adding All-Star veterans Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett last summer and stripping their club of over half of its promising-but-unproven talent in the process, the Celtics instantly transformed themselves from one of the NBA’s youngest and least successful teams into one of its top contenders. Many predicted an adjustment period because of the drastic roster upheaval, but there was no such thing in the cards for this team. Boston stormed out to an astonishing 29-3 record to start the season, quickly establishing themselves as an incredibly tough squad to beat in Boston and a premier defensive unit. They never looked back, and have coasted through the better part of the regular season with little more to play for than to fine tune their efficient machine.
And it hasn’t just been KG, Allen, and Paul Pierce behind the success. Second-year PG Rajon Rondo has improved his overall game drastically compared to his rookie season, bumping his per-game averages up in field-goal shooting (49%), points (10.6), assists (5.1), rebounds (4.2), and steals (1.7). James Posey has given the team toughness, tenacious man-defense, and an outside scoring threat off the bench in his first season with Boston. Starting center Kendrick Perkins has been a beast on the blocks, while fellow youngsters Leon Powe and Glen Davis have developed into reliable low-post bangers capable of putting up big stats when needed. For as “old” as their core is, like the Detroit Pistons the Celtics have still reserved lots of room (and minutes) for a few potential building blocks of the future.
Their opponent, the Atlanta Hawks, have been building towards this day for a decade. Their last playoff appearance came back in 1999, when they eliminated the then-stagnating Pistons in the first round before being knocked off in the second by the New York Knicks. (My, how things have changed.) Led by two of the best players casual NBA fans have never heard—SG and first-time All Star Joe Johnson along with explosive F Josh “J-Smoove” Smith—the Hawks would have finished in 12th place overall in the Western Conference, but managed to squeeze out the Indiana Pacers for the 8th and final spot in the top-heavy East.
If you haven’t seen much of the Hawks this season, despite their sub-.500 record they really are a fun team to watch, especially since ex-Sacramento Kings PG Mike Bibby arrived in a trade-deadline deal. Johnson is one of the league’s best pure scorers and excellent at creating his own shot, rookie Alfred Horford is our pick to win this year’s Rookie of the Year award (10 points, 9.7 boards, 50% FG, 1 block/per), and the aforementioned Smith can fill up a stat sheet with the best of ’em: in this his fourth pro season after entering the league straight out of high school, the 6-9 Smith averaged 17.2 points, 8.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.5 steals, and 2.8 blocks. And he can drain the longball. Yes, the kid is absolutely filthy.
He’s also still a very immature player at times, which brings me back to the Celtics not needing any further motivation to squelch the little weasel that is the Atlanta Hawks. There’s nothing wrong with confidence in yourself and your teammates—let’s face it, the Hawks are going to need plenty of it over the next week or so—but Smith (and Josh Childress) probably could have kept this stuff behind closed doors:
Atlanta forward Josh Smith has said his team is “going to shock the world” by upsetting the Celtics. Teammate Josh Childress has said he doesn’t think “there’s any position where you can say we are severely undermanned against them.”
The Boston Celtics beat the Atlanta Hawks by an average of 14.3 points during their three regular-season meetings.
ETB breaks down the Celtics-Hawks series and rolls out our predictions after the jump…
The Hawks have no shortage of talent within their main rotation. After stagnating with the Kings the past few seasons, Bibby has been rejuvenated by a change of scenery, averaging 14 points, 6.5 assists, 2 three-pointers, and 1.1 steals over his first 33 games as Atlanta’s starting floor general. He’s finally given this team the point guard they’ve so sorely lacked for quite some time, and allowed Johnson to focus more on what he does best—scoring—and less on setting up his teammates and getting their half-court sets in motion.
The backcourt problem in this series for the Hawks is two-fold, however: aside from swingman Josh Childress, who’s more comfortable at SF than he is at SG, there’s very little depth to speak of behind the starters. Salim Stoudemire can really light it up at times, but he’s a major defensive liability and if he’s not feeling it from the field, he’s not giving you much. Rookies Acie Law and Mario West are much too green and will likely see very limited minutes. If Bibby and/or ohnson struggle or are saddled with early fouls, the Hawks are basically f#%ed.
Joe Johnson Photo Credit: Icon SMI
Depth aside, Allen and Pierce (who starts at SF) are skilled, hungry veterans who’ve had one goal in mind all season long: a championship. Not finishing the season above .500, not making the playoffs, not gunning to advance past the first round. Anything less than a trip to the NBA Finals would be considered a disappointment for the Celtics, so you can bet that Boston’s big guns (including Rondo) are going to give their backcourt opponents all they can handle. And then some.
Once again, the Hawks have a lot of nice pieces in their frontcourt. I’ve already talked about Smith and the impact he can have on the game; he’ll obviously need to be at the very top of his game and do an excellent job of on-the-job postseason training in this his first playoff series. Horford has only gotten better as the season wore on, a player with championship pedigree from his college days with the Florida Gators and who is a nightly double-double threat. And we’d be remiss to forget Marvin Williams, the second-overall pick of the 2005 draft and still just 21-years-old. He was the wrong pick that year for Atlanta with some dudes named Chris Paul and Deron Williams still on the board, but that’s not his fault. Williams has shown steady improvement over his first three seasons, and this was his best one yet: 14.8 points, 5.7 boards, 1 steal, 46% FG, and 82% FT.
But, again… that group is being asked to contend with Kevin Garnett, one of the most intense athletes not only in NBA history, but in professonal sports period. He’s an absolute maniac and the Hawks will struggle to match his intensity, not to mention his pure basketball ability. There’s only one team in the league capable of reasonably containing Garnett, Pierce, Perkins, and the rest of the crew, and that team is on the other side of the Eastern Conference bracket.
On paper this is the most lopsided series of Round 1, and though both of us here at ETB are psyched that the Hawks squeezed in and think they’ll learn a lot from this experience, it’ll be a minor miracle if they steal more than one game away from the Celtics. Perhaps it’ll be a different story if these two teams meet again in the playoffs 3 years from now, but for now this stands as the series most likely to end in a sweep. I hate to say it, but the only thing that can sink the Celts in the first round is if one or more of its stars aggravates a prior injury and misses time. Kevin Garnett’s strained groin, Ray Allen’s somewhat-balky ankle… those are the wild cards in this series. And it’s the only chance Atlanta has.
Andrew: Boston Celtics in four.
Brian: Boston Celtics in five.