Despite this being a false reputation, the Atlanta Hawks vs. Boston Celtics is viewed as a series of two similar teams. Two units that are better than the sum of their parts and that don’t feature any stars but play great team basketball. That sells the Hawks quite a bit short, even if it is a nice thing to say. Al Horford is a perennial maybe on All-NBA rosters and Paul Millsap has a great chance to make his first this season.
Boston, on the other hand, might be the current balanced roster golden boys fighting against the stars and scrubs model. Yes, there was a lot of hyperbole there.
Before the All-Star Break, the Celtics were 7th in the league in Net Rating at 3.9 (103.5 OR – 99.6 DR) with Atlanta falling in right behind them in eighth with a 3.3 (103.1 OR – 99.8 DR). The rest of the season is what sets these two apart. Yes, Jae Crowder, the player that meets the eye test of Boston’s best on-ball wing defender missed 9 games after the All-Star Break, take that into account.
The Hawks finished the season with the second best defensive rating for the season (98.8) and bested the Spurs over their final 27 games, showing a 96.8 rating over that span. Boston dropped only a few spots to ninth, but their overall rating was 103.7 post All-Star Break. Over an 82 game sample, the Hawks and Celtics were two of the best defensive teams – second and fourth respectively – and both did it similarly averaging over 9 steals per game in 2nd and 3rd overall.
Keys to the Series
- Keep length on Isaiah Thomas. Dennis Schroder may only be 6’1″ but he has a 6’7.75″ wingspan and is known for being “lengthy.” Jeff Teague, though lacking the stigma, is very similarly sized with a 6’7.5″ wingspan. Thomas takes the eighth most shots within 10 feet when he is “tightly guarded” (2-4 feet) but he shoots a terrible 40.7% on those shots. It’s easy to say that you should stick on the small ball creator, but hard to accomplish. However, Schroder and Teague could snuff out a lot of Boston possessions by sticking close and using their length on Thomas.
- Neutralize Crowder by making him play up a position. Crowder is a VERY good singular, on-ball defender, but he actually allowed a shooting percentage of 7.2 points higher than normal on shots within six feet. Part of that has to do with the team as a whole not having an elite rim protector, but if Atlanta can get Crowder on Millsap, he might be able to eat him up inside. Millsap scores 1.05 points/possession on postups with a 16% frequency. That’s fifth best in the NBA if you sort out small samples.
- Don’t forget about Kyle Korver. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t expect Brad Stevens to forget about Korver, one of the most well known shooters in the NBA and he still holds gravity, even after a slow start to the season. There is a thought that Korver is having a less than elite season after he struggled in the middle of the year, relatively. He hasn’t approached 50% 3P% either. Well, on 5 attempts per game, Korver is averaging a healthy 39.9% on the season, but shot 42.3% since the All-Star Break. He’s not elite currently, that’s true. But Korver can still change a game very quickly at any moment if you give him the space.
- Fast hands. As I noted above, the Celtics were near the top of the league in steals per game all year. Crowder is near elite in the fast hands category and averaged 1.7 per game, but Boston features five players that averaged more than 1 steal per game and three big men that averaged between 0.7 and 0.9 per game. Add that to Boston’s third place ranking in points off turnovers (18.8 per game) and the Celtics can tilt things in their favor.
Maybe it’s too easy to say that a 22.2 ppg scorer is an X-Factor. But the possible limitations outlined above shows that Boston will need Thomas to succeed. Some teams have several ways to crack a defense, and the Celtics have six players averaging over 10 ppg, but those points rely a lot on Thomas’s ability to create those cracks in the defense for players to take advantage off the ball. Boston spots up on a healthy 20% of their possessions according to NBA.com and those possessions need to be created.
The second half of the season showed the adjustments that Atlanta could make with their personnel and becoming the best second half defense and the second best defense overall. Add in the return to form of Korver as the season went on and there’s a team that should be able to handle the limited upside of Boston.
Hawks in 6