In my series preview, I opined that the Hawks should limit minutes for "scrubs and washed-up veterans," and that Ivan Johnson, not Jason Collins, should be the first option at center. Following are notes regarding the series and its take-aways.
In Game 1, with 9:56 to play in the 4th, Ivan Johnson argued with a referee over a foul call. Larry Drew motioned for Ivan to calm down, but instead he exchanged words with Drew. Collins entered the game for Ivan, who sat the rest of the way. He finished with 4 points and 5 rebounds and got to watch Rajon Rondo's meltdown with 41 seconds to play as he cost his team a chance at victory. Drew later told the AJC's Michael Cunningham that he overreacted by pulling Ivan out of the game.
Ivan also called Kevin Garnett a "dirty player" according to Cunningham. In the Initial Feedback for the Hawks' Game 1 win, Hoopinion's Bret LaGree wrote that, "The Celtics figure to get more familiar and less pleased with [Ivan's] presence as the series progresses." The opposite would prove to be true as Ivan's minutes decreased throughout the series, doubtless increasing Boston's pleasure.
In Game 2, Collins got his second start and was again solid defensively. But with 8:25 to play in the 4th and the score tied at 66-66, Collins picked up his 6th foul. Ivan's night had featured an assortment of missed jumpers, successful assaults on the basket, solid post defense in isolation and blown defensive assignments. On two separate possessions for Boston, Garnett and Brandon Bass went 1-on-1 in the post against Ivan and came up empty-handed. Ivan was far from perfect in this game, but in the absence of Zaza Pachulia he was the best banger available.
Rather than put Ivan back in to match up with Garnett, Drew subbed in Marvin Williams and slid Josh Smith over to center. This is an alignment Drew toyed with throughout the season, usually with unspectacular results. In this case the results were disastrous. Drew was fully aware of Smith's ongoing struggles with knee tendinitis. Rather than send Ivan back in to body up Garnett, he sacrificed Josh. With just over 4 minutes to play, Garnett delivered a hip check and Josh's knee buckled. The Celtics outscored the Hawks 13-8 the rest of the way and home-court advantage was a pleasant memory.
In Game 3, with Smith unavailable, Drew got 22 effective minutes from Erick Dampier, who chipped in 6 points and 6 rebounds. Hinrich played 26 scoreless minutes, but as Cunningham broke down here, he kept Rondo from going off. With the Hawks trailing 54-53 with 2:05 to play in the 3rd quarter, Pargo replaced Hinrich. By the time Marvin Williams checked in for Pargo with 7:39 to play in the 4th, the Hawks trailed 74-65. For the game, the Hawks played the Celtics even while Hinrich was on the floor and were outscored by 11 with Pargo on the floor. The Hawks lost by 6. Hinrich did not take the floor in overtime but minimum salary players Willie Green, Vladimir Radmanovic, Tracy McGrady and Jason "Instant Offense" Collins did.
After Collins' star-making 6 point, 5 rebound performance in 32 minutes in Game 1, LaGree noted, "After banking this win, let's hope Larry Drew ponders his Plan B." In Game 4, the Celtics got their 4th look at Jason Collins as starting center. In 54 minutes across Games 2-4, Collins scored 6 points and pulled down 7 rebounds. The Celtics made shots at an absurd rate, and Atlanta found itself in a 3-1 series hole.
With Josh Smith returning to the lineup but still hobbled, you might have thought this would be a good time to give Ivan some run. Through the first three games, Johnson averaged over 15 minutes. In Game 4 Johnson played 6 minutes. Then in Game 5 his only appearance was as a momentary defensive substitute. During the TNT halftime show, Charles Barkley said, "It’s never a good thing when your most fierce player doesn’t get in the game,” referring to Ivan. Although the Hawks would win Game 5, some chickens that came home to roost in Game 6 were much in evidence. At the end of the 1st quarter, Josh Smith lingered at the offensive end to argue a non-call and recovered just in time to watch Kevin Garnett hit a 3-pointer to put Boston ahead 21-15. Josh had so many passes to Rondo, you would have thought they were already on the same team. One of his turnovers while trying to lead the fast break was so egregious, it must be what prompted Larry Drew to say, “When we are at our best is when [Al] and Josh rebound the ball and bring it out on the dribble."
Finally in Game 5, Drew made an adjustment to the starting lineup that wasn't dictated by injury. Horford replaced Collins as the starting center, but perhaps just as significantly, Drew went big with Joe Johnson at shooting guard and Marvin Williams at small forward. This allowed Hinrich to come off the bench as the primary backup point guard, making Pargo superfluous. In this configuration, Hinrich saw only 7 minutes, scoring 7 points on 3-for-4 shooting. Green equaled Hinrich in minutes, but his time on the floor was disastrous. Green subbed in for Joe Johnson 33 seconds before halftime and barely contested Rondo's 27-footer at the buzzer that evened the score at 40-40. The Hawks were outscored by 11 during Green's time on the floor. Fortunately for the Hawks, they outscored the Celtics by 1 point and won the game.
This brings us to the build-up for Game 6, where a win would shift momentum and home court advantage back to the Hawks. To aid in the effort, Hawks co-owner Michael Gearon, Jr. provided the Celtics some bulletin-board material by parroting Ivan, calling Garnett "the dirtiest guy in the league." Dampier, the only backup big man to see time, played 12 scoreless minutes as the Hawks' season concluded.
Tracy McGrady and Hinrich also saw marginally-effective minutes, but it was the starters who would decide the outcome of this game. Ron Borges of the Boston Herald wrote the following with regard to Josh Smith's contributions to the outcome:
With 9:29 remaining and the Celtics leading 71-65, Atlanta’s Josh Smith got into a silly beef about whether or not he could enter the game and was hit with a technical that cost the Hawks a point.
Seconds later he had his shot blocked. While he was gesticulating toward his shoulder and refusing to run up the floor, the Celtics fled the scene. Had he trailed the play he might well have knocked the ball loose because his teammates stopped the Celts charge, but Smith was nowhere to be found. Instead of getting into the game defensively, Smith was pleading his case down court, even though no one was listening.
Seconds later Kevin Garnett hit a 10-foot fadeaway and it was 74-65. In a matter of 47 seconds Smith’s non-plays cost his team three points in a game they would lose — surprise — by three points.
So what did we learn? The following table shows the reserves plus part-time starters Hinrich and Collins, ranked by +/-. Rebounds are listed only for front-court players and 3-pointers and percentage are listed only for wing players:
Dampier 54 7-13 54 - - 16 14 -1
Collins 86 6-11 55 - - 12 12 -4
Johnson 53 5-16 31 - - 13 17 -13
Hinrich 141 13-30 43 6-16 38 34 - -15
McGrady 91 10-26 38 0-4 0 25 - -17
Pargo 46 6-21 29 4-12 33 16 - -26
Green 63 6-13 46 1-4 25 13 - -40
As you can see, Ivan Johnson out-scored and out-rebounded Collins in 33 fewer minutes, although his shooting percentage was worse than anyone on this list except Pargo. Meanwhile Green, who amassed a team-worst aggregate -75 for the regular season, was a team-worst -40 in a mere 6 games in the postseason. Doesn't seem like we learned much. In last year's Chicago series, Drew started Collins against the young, deep and athletic front line of the Bulls while mobile banger Zaza Pachulia languished on the bench. In the Boston series, Collins and Dampier, two minimum-salary big men at the end of their careers, played more than Ivan Johnson, who matched the athleticism of anybody on the Celtic's roster. Johnson, the reigning Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for April, could command up to the mid-level exception as a restricted free agent this Summer.
Drew's comment about the Hawks being "at their best" with Horford and Smith bringing the ball up had the sound of a man trying to rationalize circumstances beyond his control. Hawks ownership has established a pattern of rewarding negative behavior. First, after Joe Johnson participated in the most lopsided playoff series defeat in league history, and he proclaimed that he didn't care if the fans showed up, the team rewarded him with the richest contract in the sport. This year it became public knowledge that Mike Woodson feels Drew was angling for his job while still working as his lead assistant. How do you expect a coach to command the respect necessary to correct negative tendencies among his players when he's hired with no track record and is rumored to have obtained his position through less-than-ethical means? Josh Smith shot 13-for-47 outside the paint for the series. That's 34 missed field goals in a series where the team lost by single digits three times.
Even if the Hawks were inclined to replace Drew, which I seriously doubt, what sort of options would they have at their price-point among coaches willing to work while looking over their shoulder?