The Celtics will open the playoffs on the road when they take on the Atlanta Hawks in Game 1 on Sunday. Here is a look at how the teams stack up based on my observations, with a bunch of helpful input from an NBA personnel scout.
Who the Celtics Are
Chances are you have a pretty good idea of the Celtics' identity by now. The Celtics are known to be precise, if deliberate, in executing on offense. They run a variety of pick-and-roll plays to get Kevin Garnett or Paul Pierce posted up, and are one of the few teams that will run a pick and roll with their point guard (Rajon Rondo) and small forward (Pierce), whereas most teams run the pick and roll with a guard and a big man. This creates matchup confusion for the defense. Since Pierce is so versatile, he can make any team pay for switching a guard or a big man onto him defensively. It also can open passing lanes for Rondo, as the other three defenders adjust to help on the pick and roll
The Celtics run a fairly standard array of NBA sets, but they are hard to prepare for because Doc Rivers is so resourceful in coming up with ways to instantly counteract anything the defense does. When Pierce cuts to the basket to beat an overplaying defender and catches a pass from Garnett for a layup, the play looks easy because it was probably something the Celtics have installed for both players to automatically do in such a situation. Having players of Pierce and Garnett's caliber running it doesn't hurt, of course.
Who the Hawks Are
The Hawks are athletic at almost every position, although the absence of Al Horford at center hinders them somewhat. They still have the hyper-athletic Josh Smith and Jeff Teague, with Joe Johnson on the wing. The Hawks have a lot of good individual shooters, but their shooting as a team is average because they do not always wait for the best shot. Smith is the biggest culprit, although the team as a whole does not seem to have a clear understanding of who is the second scoring option after Johnson.
One difference you may notice while watching the two opposing point guards: Rondo will often call a play while dribbling upcourt or will look toward the bench to get a play from Rivers. Teague will not do that much. Instead, Atlanta head coach Larry Drew calls a series of plays each timeout for the Hawks to run in succession. This prevents a well-schooled defense like the Celtics from knowing what the Hawks are running, but it also keeps the Hawks from being able to adjust on the fly to the defense's tendencies or the ebb and flow of the game. Also, the Hawks' offense can stagnate when they get to that fourth or fifth possession with no set play called.
The Hawks seldom get to the line, not that it matters. They have the eighth-lowest free-throw percentage in the league.
How the Celtics Win the Series
Even though they will not have home court, the Celtics will be the favorite. The Hawks' perimeter players are good defenders on their own, but that can lead them to play too closely to their men at times. That could give an active cutter like Avery Bradley chances to cut to the hoop for easy baskets.
Smith and Marvin Williams like to leak out on the break, but when they do not get layups or dunks in the open floor, the Hawks do not play at an especially high tempo. The Celtics, given the chance to set their defense while the Hawks stand around and look for someone to take a shot, should be able to clamp down on defense in the half court.
Either the Hawks are the cagiest pick-and-roll defenders in the NBA or the least organized. Their athleticism from point guard through the center position leads them to switch a lot, but that can backfire. If the Celtics can continually get Smith to switch onto Rondo, for instance, the Celtics will eventually get the best of that matchup.
How the Hawks Win the Series
Smith and Johnson are superb one-on-one players who love their mid-range jump shots. If either or both get hot, there may be little the Celtics can do. Smith has shot 42 percent from mid-range against the Celtics this season compared to 36 percent from that distance overall, so either he has found a weakness in the Celtics defense or he has been shooting at an unsustainable rate that will come back to the norm in a long series.
Ivan Johnson became a fan favorite in Atlanta and could become Garnett's arch nemesis by the end of the series. The 28-year-old rookie is a physical defender, and he is aggressive on offense. With Horford and Zaza Pachulia ailing, Johnson could get on Garnett's nerves in a hurry. Johnson is known as a shooter but is also good with his back to the basket, so look for the 6-foot-8 guard to post up whenever possible against the 6-1 Rondo or 6-2 Bradley.
Whichever team controls the pace will probably win the series, which is why the Celtics, who have a knack for getting every team to play the way the Celtics want them to play, have the advantage. But if the Hawks combine fastbreaks with being patient about finding the best shot in the halfcourt, their athleticism may win out.