Friday, April 27, 2012

Series Preview: Atlanta Hawks v. Boston Celtics

In a series between two teams not only evenly matched but also similar, slight aberrations can have significant effect. This is a series where Zaza Pachulia's left foot or Ray Allen's right ankle might be as important as home-court advantage. That this is a series where neither team can be expected to score 90 points in a game unless the fix is in only exaggerates the importance of events on the margin between winning and losing. At that margin, Jannero Pargo or Willie Green or Vladimir Radmanovic or Keyon Dooling or Mickael Pietrus or Sasha Pavlovic might play a greater role, in the moment, than Josh Smith or Joe Johnson or Jeff Teague or Kevin Garnett or Paul Pierce or Rajon Rondo.

It's going to be a tight series. Be prepared not to be satisfied with the explanations. Why may lie just beyond the grasp.

However, there are three factors which seem like probable flashpoints for the series:

The Hawks must take advantage of the shots they make: Sometimes stubbornly simplistic analysis carries the weight of truth. In a series between two teams who don't try to rebound* their own misses, possessions figure to be very binary. Beyond that, the Hawks are going to take jump shots. The Celtics are capable of encouraging the Hawks to take jump shots (but not three-pointers) while still contesting the shots.

The Hawks are going to make shots the Celtics are happy with them taking. The Hawks have to take advantage of that and win the games where they make low-percentage shots. Hard done though they were by injuries, the Hawks were very fortunate to have Willie Green and Jannero Pargo shoot as accurately as they did over 66 games. If they can keep it up for as many as seven more games, this series becomes even more difficult for the Celtics.

*Atlanta ranks 26th in offensive rebound percentage (with Zaza Pachulia and Al Horford posting the highest rates on the team). Boston ranks 30th.

Larry Drew has to figure out the best available lineup and ride it hard: Pachulia's health will determine how tied Drew's hands end up being. There's not a Hawk who can close out effectively on Kevin Garnett. There's not an interior pairing that can close out effectively on both Kevin Garnett and Brandon Bass without encouraging one of those two to head into the post. There's not an interior pairing that will be uniformly capable of defending the pick-and-roll.

Related, the Hawks have the option of playing two small guards, better to defend Rajon Rondo and Avery Bradley. In doing so, they aren't forcing Rondo or Bradley to defend Joe Johnson on the other end. With Kevin Garnett sure to bait Josh Smith into taking as many jumpers as possible, Joe Johnson can't come a clear second to Paul Pierce in this series if the Hawks are going to win. Johnson doesn't necessarily have to best Pierce, but the typical Joe Johnson playoff performance (poor shooting, reduced scoring, fewer assists, more turnovers) isn't going to cut it.

All that being said, if the Hawks find something that works, they're in great shape because Boston cannot score consistently. Especially if Ray Allen is limited physically.

In a battle between mediocre offenses and good defenses, the team that converts turnovers into transition points will prevail: Only five teams turned the ball over on a higher percentage of their possessions than the Celtics did this season. Converting those into scoring chances before Boston's defense gets set, either by mitigating the low-percentage shots they figure to take in the half-court or by getting some free points they don't typically get at the free throw line, will be key for the Hawks.

The Hawks don't turn the ball over very often. Boston, however, was fourth in the league in forcing turnovers this season. If Boston turns the Hawks over, then an Atlanta offense that struggles to score against good defenses will collapse entirely against the Celtics. The Hawks could get invaluable offensive contributions from Pargo, Green, reigning Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month Ivan Johnson, Tracy McGrady or Vladimir Radmanovic. All of those guys, save Green, also turn the ball over on at least 14% of the possessions they use.

The prediction: The only things that would surprise me in this series were for it to last fewer than six games or for a team to score 100 points in a game that lasts less than three overtimes. Neither team has the offensive firepower to control a game, much less the series. With a healthy Zaza Pachulia, this series would be, from Atlanta's perspective, at worst a toss up. I'm not confident Pachulia can have a positive impact on the series.

If he can't, that puts tremendous pressure on the undersized Ivan Johnson, the oversized Jason Collins, the physically inconsistent Tracy McGrady and Vladimir Radmanovic, and the thoroughly inconsistent Marvin Williams to be as productive in doing the dirty work as Pachulia managed in Al Horford's absence. Absent Pachulia, it also puts tremendous pressure on Larry Drew to make good use of mismatched pieces. Against Boston's defense, against Pierce's and Garnett's remaining talent and desire, even wise or clever decisions are not certain to pay off. Celtics in 6.

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