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The Celtics open their 2012 title quest with a first-round matchup against the Atlanta Hawks. The series tips off Sunday evening in Atlanta.
The last time the Celtics and Hawks met in the first round of the NBA playoffs, the Celtics won the title back in 2008. The series was a hotly contested seven-game series with some memorable jabbing between Kevin Garnett and Zaza Pachulia.
A lot has changed in the NBA landscape since 2008, but there are nine players in this series that have absolutely no love loss between one another. Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo for the Celtics and Joe Johnson, Al Horford, Josh Smith, Marvin Williams and Pachulia for the Hawks all participated in the 2008 series.
Four years later both the Celtics and Hawks are in title or bust mode, let’s talk a look at some of the key factors in this series.
With Horford sidelined for the series and Pachulia out for an undermined amount of time, the Hawks’ front-court attack hinges on Josh Smith. Smith has been able to use his athleticism in the past to reek havoc on Garnett and the Celtics’ interior, but without his 7-foot counterparts, it remains to be seen whether he can be effective against the uber-efficient Celtics’ defense.
Smith has quietly put together one of his best seasons as a pro, but will likely have to be near-perfect on all fronts if the Hawks hope to advance.
For as much hype as Rondo’s assist numbers have gotten this season, Pierce’s offensive efficiency deserves some credit. Pierce posted his best scoring margin in the last three seasons this year and did so with fewer touches and less shots. At the age of 34, Pierce’s game doesn’t appear to have lost any power, as he posted almost identical numbers this season to five seasons ago.
Pierce will be guarded in the series primarily by Johnson, Williams and Tracy McGrady. Pierce has the size and craftiness to take advantage of almost any defensive matchup the Hawks throw at him, and the Celtics will need him to be the aggressor.
Much has been made this season about the emergence of Avery Bradley. Bradley’s signature ferocious defense will get a huge challenge against Johnson, whose combination of size, speed and shooting ability will provide Bradley with a monumental challenge in the first meaningful playoff minutes of his career.
The Celtics will also need Bradley’s shot to fall, especially in light of the questionable status of Allen. If Bradley is up for the challenge the Celtics could take this series easily, but if Bradley struggles they could be in trouble.
Call me optimistic, but I just don’t see anyway the current Hawks squad (minus Horford and Pachulia) can hang with the current Celtics team. Even without Allen, the Celtics are incredibly deep on the wings, with Bradly, Mickael Pietrus, Sasha Pavlovic and Marquis Daniels all capable of stepping up if needed.
The Celtics have gotten comfortable with a front-court rotation of Garnett, Brandon Bass and Greg Stiemsma, while the Hawks certainly can’t be comfortable leaning on the likes of Jason Collins and Ivan Johnson for meaningful contributions.
The Celtics understand they need to take care of the Hawks quickly so that they can rest up to be at full strength against a much tougher second round opponent.