7:00 PM EST, TNT – Line: Atlanta -6, Over/Under: 205.5
After nearly pulling off a miraculous comeback, the Boston Celtics look to square away their First Round Series with the Atlanta Hawks, but may find doing so much more difficult after events that transpired late in their postseason opener. After trailing 51-34 at Halftime, the Celtics (48-34, 2nd in Atlantic Division) clawed their way back into the game, outscoring the hosts by sixteen points over the final twenty-four minutes of play, before finally falling short in a 102-101 defeat. However, midway through the final stanza of Saturday’s contest, Avery Bradley suffered a nasty hamstring injury that will reportedly sideline him for at least the remainder of this series, if not beyond. The absence of Bradley presents a very clear dilemma, for while being Boston’s second leading scorer at 15.2 points per game, the fifth-year Guard is by far and away the most tenacious perimeter defender on the roster, capable of stifling even the best Point Guards in the league. As a result, it remains to be seen just how Stevens will go about replacing Bradley in the rotation, for it’s not as if the young skipper is without options. The C’s are one of the deeper teams in the Playoffs, sporting six different players scoring in double-figures, with as many as ten guys logging at least fifteen minutes of action. As rotations typically shorten in the postseason, with youthful enthusiasm giving way to experience, it’s likely that Stevens will turn to either veteran Evan Turner or sophomore Marcus Smart. Both players are significantly bigger than Bradley (6′-2″), offering some interesting matchups, but that could be potentially troublesome against Atlanta, particularly when they utilize their smaller lineups. At 6′-7 “, the former can defend multiple positions, while also handling Point duties (4.4 assists) with the electrifying Isaiah Thomas, who scored a game-high twenty-seven points in Game One, playing more so off the ball. However, Turner doesn’t offer much as a shooter, only netting twenty three-pointers in eighty-one games of play. The latter wasn’t much better from beyond the arc; though Smart tripled the production of his teammate, he only shot 25.3% from distance, hardly comparable to Bradley’s 36.1%. At 6′-4″, 220 lbs he’s built like a tank, bringing a real sense of physicality to the position, particularly on the defensive end where his 1.5 steals equaled that of his incumbent. Either way, no matter who fills his shoes, they’ll have to do a better job of defending the Hawks’ Backcourt, which accounted for forty-six of the team’s points, with both Jeff Teague and Kent Bazemore scoring twenty-three apiece. Again, we can’t underscore just how important it is that Turner and/or Smart bring the pain defensively, particularly given Thomas’ limitations at 5′-9”, where he can oftentimes be a liability against bigger Guards. And let’s face it, at that size, just about everyone he defends is going to have a size advantage against him. This leads us to their next problem. When teams have trouble defending, they far to often resort to fouling, which Boston did a whole lot Saturday; the Celtics committed thirty-two fouls, leading to thirty-five free-throws for the Hawks, of which they calmly drained twenty-seven of them. And at the end of the day, that ultimately proved to be the decisive factor, as Atlanta outscored them by eleven points from the Charity Stripe. This has been a persistent problem for this young team, as only one other team has committed more fouls this season (21.9), with opponents attempting an average of 26.0 freebies per game, third-most in the league. Of course, none of the above excuses their dismal performance shooting the basketball, as Stevens’ charges managed to shoot just 36.3% from the field, despite assisting on a healthy twenty-seven of their thirty-seven field goals. The visitors did however attempt a whopping 102 shots, sixteen more than the home side, thanks in large part to their work on the offensive glass, earning fifteen extra opportunities via rebounds. In fact, the aforementioned Turner and Smart led the charge in that regard, securing three offensive boards apiece.
Meanwhile, after establishing a rather comfortable Halftime lead, the Hawks (48-34, 2nd in Southeast Division) can’t help but feel fortunate that they were able to stave off Boston’s furious rally and emerge with an important victory. Given the injury situation with Avery Bradley, logic would dictate that Atlanta in all likelihood took their opponent’s best punch, but reigning Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer will have to keep his charges sharp so that they can take a commanding 2-0 lead as the series transitions to Beantown. Let’s be honest, despite taking Game One, this team was FAR from their best on Saturday evening, and very nearly put themselves into an unnecessary hole in the process. As we detailed earlier, the Celtics struggled to throw the basketball in the ocean, but the Hawks on the other hand, were only marginally better. The hosts only shot 40.7% from the field themselves, underscored by an absolutely dreadful night from the perimeter, where they made just five of their twenty-seven attempts from three (18.5%). Now anyone that has watched these guys play knows just how uncharacteristic that line is; though they check in at the middle of the pack from a percentage standpoint (35.0%, 15th Overall), the home side ranked sixth overall in three-point field goals, netting 9.9 per game, and with that sixth in Effective Field Goal Percentage (which is weighted for the value of the money ball) at 51.6%. With that said, Saturday was just an ugly day at the office, for even sharpshooting wingman Kyle Korver, who has shot no less than 39.8% from long-range in the past seven years, laid an egg (pun intended), shooting 0-for-7 in that regard. But hey, when your shot betrays you, head towards the rim, where more often than not, aggressiveness is rewarded with free-throws. Simply put, the Hawks took advantage of the term home cookin’, shooting thirty-five free-throws on the evening, thanks in large part to the relentless drives of Jeff Teague, who went off in the Fourth Quarter, scoring or assisting on seven of his team’s final twelve scores, with much of that total occurring after Bradley’s departure. With twenty-three points on 7-of-15 shooting from the field, Teague made the most of his residence at the Charity Stripe, knocking down nine of eleven attempts (81.8%), as Boston’s remaining Guards struggled to keep the speedster from penetrating into the interior of the defense. If Boston does indeed deploy bigger Guards to make up for the loss of Bradley, then Budenholzer could really exploit the mismatch with a smaller lineup, choosing instead to complement Teague with third-year Guard Dennis Shroder, to put nother penetrator on the floor. If the Celtics then go small to matchup, the tandem of Al Horford and Paul Millsap really becomes a threat. Horford and Millsap complemented each other wonderfully this season, accounting for a combined 32.3 points, 16.3 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 2.6 steals, and 3.2 blocks. If their opponent sacrifices size for quickness, then look for that gaping rebounding advantage to decrease a good bit, which only works in the Hawks’ favor. If this was a game of chess, then Budenholzer would definitely be in a position to influence the board.