Celtics-Hawks Playoff Preview: Key Matchups, Prediction For Round 1 Series

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Celtics guard Avery Bradley

Photo via Boston Celtics guard Avery Bradley (0) pushes the ball up the court in the fourth quarter of their game against the Atlanta Hawks at Philips Arena. The Hawks won 118-107.

The Boston Celtics laid it all on the line Wednesday with hopes of gaining home-court advantage in the playoffs for the first time since 2012. The result was an enthralling win that produced a less thrilling outcome: The Eastern Conference’s No. 5 playoff seed and a tough matchup against the rugged Atlanta Hawks.

The No. 4 seed Hawks and Celtics both compiled 48-34 records this season, but the head-to-head matchup was more lopsided. Atlanta won the season series 3-1 and won its previous three meetings against Boston, including an 11-point victory over the C’s less than a week ago.

But all bets are off when it comes to the NBA postseason, and this series has “battle” written all over it. Who will emerge victorious? Let’s break it down:

No. 4 Atlanta Hawks — 48-34, 2nd in Southeast Division
Leading scorer: Paul Millsap, 17.1 points per game
Biggest strength: Defense. The Hawks were the NBA’s best defensive team in the second half of the season, posting a league-best 96.8 defensive efficiency rating since the All-Star break. Paul Millsap and Al Horford are excellent low-post defenders who can give the Celtics serious trouble in the paint, and Atlanta’s pesky frontcourt helped the Hawks rank third in the NBA with 9.1 steals per game.
Biggest weakness: Lack of a backcourt star. Jeff Teague is a solid point guard who earned an All-Star nod last season, but his production dipped a bit this season, and he’s not the game-changing guard that nearly every serious title contender boasts. The Hawks’ best players are in their frontcourt, but it will be Teague, not Millsap or Horford, who has the ball in his hands down the stretch. If he doesn’t step up, Atlanta could be in trouble.
The Hawks will win if… They bully Boston up front and take care of the ball. The Celtics don’t defend the post too well, and Millsap has scored 20-plus points in Atlanta’s last three wins against the C’s. If he and Horford find their groove and the guards can limit turnovers, they’ll prevent the Celtics from reeling off their trademark runs. That will force Boston’s less-than-stellar shooters to play catch-up via the outside shot, and in a seven-game series, that’s a formula for failure.

No. 5 Boston Celtics — 48-34, 2nd in Atlantic Division
Leading scorer: Isaiah Thomas, 22.2 points per game
Biggest strength: Defense and depth. The Hawks and Celtics actually are very similar in that they rely on their defense to create offense. Boston forced 15.8 turnovers per game this season, tied for the highest mark in the NBA, and the ferocious trio of Marcus Smart, Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder can give opposing frontcourts fits. The C’s also boast a strong second unit led by Evan Turner that has helped them pull away from teams with inferior benches.
Biggest weakness: Frontcourt consistency. Amir Johnson has been the closest thing Boston has to a stable presence up front, but he’s by no means a reliable scorer. Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk have had their ups and downs, and Tyler Zeller has been effective in small doses but averaged just 11.8 minutes per game this season. Simply put, the Celtics don’t have a go-to big man, and they’ve been exposed this season by quality forwards, of which the Hawks have two.
The Celtics will win if… Isaiah Thomas rises to the occasion. Thomas is the engine that makes this team go, and when he’s attacking the rim with force and knocking down outside shots, the Celtics are tough to beat. The C’s will need to force turnovers at a high rate and get the ball into the hands of Thomas, who excels at pushing the pace and scoring fast-break points. For all of Boston’s depth, a first-round series win likely will come on Thomas’ back.

Prediction: Celtics in seven.
This series should be a doozy. The Celtics’ Brad Stevens and the Hawks’ Mike Budenholzer both are excellent coaches who’ve made serious playoff contenders out of teams lacking a bona-fide star.

On paper, Atlanta has the edge. But Boston comes in with a chip on its shoulder and a finally healthy roster eager to prove to the rest of the league that it belongs. The Celtics have willed themselves to victory on several occasions this season, and such will be the case in a tight Game 7 that features Thomas stepping up down the stretch to vault Boston into the second round.

Click for NESN.com’s complete first-round predictions >>

Thumbnail photo via Jason Getz/USA TODAY Sports Images

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