Celtics vs Hawks: Climbing out and Staying out

The Celtics can climb out of a scoring deficit, but can they climb out of a series deficit?

Source: David Goldman. Pictured: Kelly Olynyk reacting to his own defense in game 1

There are two kinds of people. There are those who worry about the Celtics scoring 19 in the 1st quarter, and those who worry about them giving up 30.  

While the Celtics dropped game 1 in Atlanta by one lonely point, there are certainly a lot of holes to be filled in game 2. The resilient Celtics squad has proved throughout the season that they can rebound from almost any deficit, as seen in their recent victory over the Miami Heat where they trailed by as much as 26. Their start against Atlanta wasn’t much better, but the way it ended was a bit worse.

Despite the abysmal start from the field, the Celtics hit two more field goals than Atlanta overall (37 vs 35) which included six more three-balls drained on a significantly higher percentage (11-35 for 31.4% vs 5-27 for 18.5%). The Celtics got every shot they could have wanted and then some, as they took 102 attempts from the field to Atlanta’s 86. When a team gets 16 more shot attempts in a loss decided by one point, it’s easy to complain about missed shots, but I think there are much more important issues to discuss. Don’t lose sight of the fact that the Celtics win games through their defense.

The Hawks turned the ball over 11 times last night against a Celtics team that forces just over nine per game on steals alone. Both teams scored 15 on the fast break, which is interestingly one point less than Boston's season average while being one point higher than Atlanta's season average. While the Cs were unable to stop the ball, the Hawks were able to own the paint, where they outscored Boston 52 to 36. The Celtics were rarely able to deny the ball from Jeff Teague, whose 12 assists all resulted in lay ups, and/or baskets by Horford and Millsap. It’s hard to “fix” missing shots on one end, but the defense on the other end can be mended, and limiting Teague's opportunities to generate offense could make the difference.

Even with Jeff Teague's excellence, Atlanta doesn’t play as much of a guard-centric style as many other teams are gravitating towards, and the Celtics were rarely challenged to defend multiple threats in the paint like they were in game 1. The interior is where the most problems are, but with Boston committing 32 fouls (to ATL’s 20), they lost the ability to contest shots near the rim at the risk of fouling out. With four fouls apiece on Thomas, Crowder, Johnson, and Smart, not to mention Sullinger fouling out, Atlanta was not only free to attack the basket, but were also awarded 16 more free throws overall. I'd rather see Atlanta takes less free throws than Boston take less open field goals. 

At this point, we understand that patching up the defense is undoubtedly more important to winning the series than worrying about the offense, but, you might ask, how will they do it without Avery Bradley? Injuries obviously never help, but I would argue that an injury to Bradley is far from the worst thing that could happen. As I said earlier, the Hawks rely much less on their guards than other teams. If anything, I think the Cs need more length on the floor. They’re caught between a rock and hard place with Isaiah Thomas, where they desperately need him on the court to fuel the offense, while they desperately need anybody else out there to play defense. Thomas is not a bad defender, but if Smart were to pick up Jeff Teague, like I was yelling at him to do through my TV, then Thomas would be giving up nearly a foot of height on any other player among Atlanta’s starters.

My solution: Terry Rozier. Terry has about a 6’8” wingspan as a 6’2” guard. For reference, old friend Rajon Rondo is 6’1” with a 6’9” wingspan. The two inch difference is significant, but Rozier played some relevant minutes towards the end of the year (as well as 10 minutes or more in 12 of last 17 games) where he displayed some eye-opening athleticism while tearing down five boards against the Warriors and seven against the Lakers. 

More realistically, I’d like to see the Celtics bigs stay out of foul trouble. Amir Johnson and Jared Sullinger played 22 and 19 minutes respectively against a team that played Al Horford and Paul Millsap 36 minutes each. With Kelly Olynyk playing only 12 minutes with his sore shoulder, there’s a lot of weight on Sully and Amir to carry the load. I have no doubts that the Celtics will hoist another 100 shots next game, but I do question their ability to hold Atlanta to under 100 points. The only time they have managed to do so in five match ups this season, they won by 13. Every other game was a loss. 


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