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It’s Nice to be Surprised: C’s 99, Hawks 93

 

Official recap here; Hawks blog analysis from Peachtree Hoops and HoopOpinion.

The headline I had planned for this post three hours ago was: “Most Depressing Day of the Season?” Once the bad news about KG broke, I expected a loss tonight, and I expected the loss to be more frustrating than usual because it would come on top of the KG news and put the C’s squarely in the third spot in the Eastern Conference.

But then five guys scored in double figures (and Rajon Rondo had nine points), the defense was running around causing problems as if KG were directing it and the Celtics found a way to get a road win against a top-10 home team. So for the moment, I can escape the reality that the C’s may not have KG, Leon Powe or Tony Allen ready to go in the playoffs–a reality we’ve all been assuming, cautiously, as the C’s faded from Cleveland.

The credit goes first to the team defense, and to the coaching staff for constructing a Hawks-specific scheme that worked well. Every time Joe Johnson touched the ball, the C’s double-teamed him or brought a second defender halfway over to help, trusting the guys behind the helper to rotate correctly. This is smart because the Celtics have no one who can guard Joe Johnson consistently. It also worked because the Celtics usually rotated away from the right players, by which I mean Josh Smith when Josh Smith was standing around the perimeter (which is where we like Josh Smith to be).

The stats say Johnson had a good game (8-of-15 for 22 points), but six of those shot attempts were in the fourth quarter, and five of those came during the Hawks furious rally (note: are there calm rallies?) in the last six minutes. Which means for the first 42 minutes, Joe Johnson took 10 shots. Quick stat check from last year’s first-round series: Johnson shot attempts in ATL wins: 18; Johnson shot attempts in ATL losses: 15. Proof of anything? No. But in general, I like the idea of forcing Mike Bibby, Josh Smith, Al Horford, et. al. to beat you.

Start with Horford: six points on 3-of-12 shooting, and almost every shot came with Horford spinning or fading away from the basket (or at least not moving toward it). Glen Davis was working hard on defense. His monster block on a Joe Johnson lefty dunk attempt (less a block, actually, than a outright snatch out of JJ’s hand) will make SportsCenter, but I was more impressed with Baby’s footwork and strength in the post. Horford couldn’t do much with him.

Smith and Bibby did damage tonight, but 15-of-32 shooting isn’t catastrophic damage. The Celts largely (and rightly) had Rondo chase Bibby over screens, but the big guys too often failed to jump out quickly enough to deter Bibby’s jumper. Doc noticed, and called an angry timeout when Bibby made a three off a screen/roll with 6:10 to go in the third quarter. After that, Bibby was 1-of-3 for two points.

You’ll notice I’m 400 words in and I haven’t mentioned that the Hawks pulled to within four late after being down 89-69 in the 4th quarter. I’m not going to get on the Celtics for this. Home teams mount this kind of late rally all the time (Philly and New Jersey were both doing it around the same time as Atlanta), and it always falls short. It was inevitable, it happens, and I’m more in the mood to praise the pre-rally play and the shot-making ability Ray Allen showed to preserve the game.

I watched Ray Allen in college, so I should have known better, but the biggest revelation for me getting to watch Walter Ray every day is how good he is on two-point jumpers and in the paint. He is an elite mid-range player. Elite. His floater over Josh Smith with 2:20 left (a carbon copy of his floater over Dwight Howard on Wednesday) was just gorgeous, and he followed it a minute later with an off the dribble mid-range jumper from the left side of the lane that was Nashian in the way Ray was both patient and fast in probing the defense and timing his shot. And there it is: Ray Allen inspires run-on sentences.

This kind of win, with Glen Davis scoring an aggressive 18 points and pulling down 12 boards (six offensive), should get get you optimistic for the playoffs. It gave us exactly what we wanted to see with KG out–role players shouldering larger responsibilities, and Stephon Marbury finally, finally, finally looking explosive going down the lane (and make three-pointers). It should make us all say: “When KG comes back, we’re going to be better than ever.”

I think we’ve all been approaching the last 15 or 20 games with that mindset. But you have to start wondering now if we’re going to see KG back at 100 percent this season. The doctor-expert we interviewed a month ago told us it was possible, but that these sorts of injuries (posterior knee strains) were tricky. We know this team will fight hard in the playoffs no matter who is healthy, but it’s beginning to look like we’re not going to have the the lineup we’ve been envisioning all season long. But neither will Orlando, and Cleveland may not either, and you have to go with what you’ve got.

A few bullets, after the jump.

• There was a moment I loved from Marbury with 6:07 left in the game. Steph was handling the ball on the left wing behind the three-point line and found himself with a lot of room because of some lazy Hawks screen/roll defense. He was 3-of-3 from deep at this point and probably feeling it, so when he rose up in a shooting motion, I expected him to fire away. But he saw Ray Allen wide open in the corner just to his left and passed off. Ray had a better look and knocked it down. A nice, unselfish play from Marbury. Give him credit.

• A tough game for Perk (21 minutes because of foul trouble), and the fifth foul against him was a truly bogus call. Zaza (whom I like, actually) was guarding Perk very closely on the perimeter, and Perk swung his elbows in the space between their heads to create some room. It’s a dangerous play, but smaller guys do this all the time and don’t get whistled. Perk didn’t touch Zaza and drew the whistle. (Zaza, in fact, appeared to accidentally poke Perk in the eye).

• Mikki Moore foul watch: five in 30 minutes. For Mikki, this is the equivalent of Joe Dimaggio’s hitting streak. He isn’t helping at all on offense, though, and if KG and Powe somehow get healthy for the playoffs, I hope Doc relegates Mikki Moore to Bill Walker status.

• Speaking of Walker, he played just one minute in the second half (the last minute). Doc must not have liked that ugly air ball in the first half.

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