Celtics vs Hawks: A Closer Look at the Defense in Game 4


Source: Michael Dwyer/ AP

After two disappointing losses in Atlanta, the Celtics responded with two home wins of their own in front of a roaring Boston crowd to even the series at 2-2. While Isaiah’s 42 point eruption in game 3 got the teams’ back off the wall, the Hawks tested the Cs' resilience again with a 3rd quarter 16 point lead in game 4. The Celtics are no strangers to double digit deficits, but had to pull out all the stops to bring this one back in what I would call a 4th quarter coach-off.

One of Brad’s toughest assignments was given to Marcus Smart, who had to stop Paul Millsap’s 43 point rampage if the Celtics had any hopes of tying up the series with the Hawks. At 6’4”, Smart locked down the 6’8” Millsap and allowed him only two more points to cap his playoff career high at 45.

Here’s a sample of Smart’s defense:

 

 

Notice how Millsap never has a chance to establish his positioning after he catches the ball for the second time in the clip. The Celtics were also able to put more pressure on the ball with Horford crashing the paint and Crowder nearby cutting off Korver. Also note how much more they can pressure Millsap by leaving the struggling Schroder open, who shot 3-13 (1-6 from deep) for the game. For comparison, here’s a play Millsap made earlier:

 

 

For many of Millsap’s made field goal attempts, he would use all the time and space he was given to get to where he wanted. In this clip, we see four other Hawks gravitate to the weak side while Millsap sizes up Jonas Jerebko. The Celtics can only do so much to help when Millsap drives with four potential pass recipients who can shoot well from three point range.

Here's another one-on-one situation with Millsap:

 

 

Once again, Millsap gets the ball on the left side, and is given time to observe his surroundings before making a move. He sees that Korver is covered, and as soon as Thomas moves away to cut off a possible pass to Schroder, Millsap plows his way to the basket.

Let’s compare it to another late possession where he’s guarded by Smart:

 

 

With Bazemore crashing in and Crowder nearby, Millsap’s only passing options were to go to Teague above the key, or through three defenders to Horford in the corner. Since Smart held his ground when Millsap tried to drive, the Celtics were able to put a lot more pressure on that side of the floor, especially with Atlanta spacing differently than before.

I give a lot of credit to Brad Stevens for looking to Smart to shut down a much larger player in Millsap during the most important game of the season, but I can’t help but think that Budenholzer’s strategies may have worked against him in crunch time. It’s easy to single out Jeff Teague’s final possession in regulation as the biggest mistake, but after looking at what we saw in those clips, it’s strange that Millsap would get less space to work with later in the game.

I also give a lot of credit to the 22 year old Smart for putting the Celtics’ fate in his hands by scoring 11 straight for Boston in the 4th quarter, while anchoring the defense on the other end. To follow up his thunderous baseline slam, Smart wrestled the lead back with back to back threes (as a 25% three point shooter in the regular season), and even followed it up with a steal immediately after to give the Celtics an 85-84 lead and the ball.

As the series heads back to Atlanta, I like Boston’s chances to steal a game on the road with the momentum currently on their side. Just like Jae Crowder just needed to see some shots go in, the Celtics as a team just needed to get the feel of a playoff win to not worry about being swept for the second straight year. However, I still have flashbacks of 2008 when the 66-16 Celtics needed all seven games to put Atlanta away in the 1st round. Still, I like our chances.

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