Brian Robb: Willie Green. Any time you have a guy coming off the bench that is shooting 44 percent, you have to at least take some notice. even if it’s Willie Green. The shooting guard won’t play much defense, but has been a sparkplug for Altanta, serving as a very poor man’s Jamal Crawford for this year’s squad. If he gets going on the offensive end, he could make life tough for Boston’s D.
Ryan DeGama: It might actually be Joe Johnson, who has the potential to be the best offensive player in this series, particularly if he starts at the SG spot. Johnson’s been hot since the all-star break (48FG%, 44% from the arc) and neither Avery Bradley (small) nor Ray Allen (old, injured) matches up well against him. That means Boston will rely on Mickael Pietrus, whose health remains an ongoing concern. I don’t like Paul Pierce as a primary Johnson defender because he needs to conserve energy for the second and third rounds where Luol Deng and LeBron James will be waiting.
Hayes Davenport: Jeff Teague. He’s maybe the only player on this team who can both shoot threes and consistently get to the rim, and as Boston focuses its energies on forcing Johnson and Smith to take difficult shots, Boston guards will probably be helping off Teague much of the time. If they do, he’ll be free to receive a kickout and either take an open three or cut to the basket, bailing out the blown Hawks possessions that are essential for Boston to pile up.
Michael Pina: The Hawks are the Hawks are the Hawks—a talented group that unfortunately hit their ceiling three years ago. But the one player I’d say has the slightest sliver of a chance at becoming Atlanta’s x-factor is their newest member, Jeff Teague. Filling in for an injured Kirk Hinrich in last year’s second round series against the Bulls, Teague was a major reason why the Hawks pushed one of the league’s best teams to six games. He’s very quick, but has a tendency to poke an opposing team’s proverbial Hornet’s nest which usually gets both him and his team in deep trouble. He’s the closest thing Atlanta has to an x-factor, but against Boston he should be well contained by one of the league’s best defensive back courts.
Brendan Jackson: Zaza Pachulia. The Hawks’ big man is a complete nuisance. Just the type of player the Celtics hate to play against but would love to have off their bench. Luckily for the C’s, Pachulia is hampered by a foot injury. If he is healthy for any part of this series, his activity level on the glass and in the paint could swing the momentum in the Hawks favor.
Robb: With expectations for Ray Allen being downgraded by the day, the C’s need Pietrus functioning at a high level to hold Joe Johnson in check. My main worry with the frenchman is his propensity to go through one of his 3-for-20 3-point shooting droughts that will handicap Boston’s already underwhelming offensive production. The C’s can get away with little from Allen in this series, but they can’t handle getting nothing from both.
DeGama: I think the Celtics can beat the Hawks even if Ray Allen misses the entire series so I’m in favor of light minutes for Allen if he does play, in part because of the defensive problems a dialed-in Johnson creates for Ray. Of course, as I noted above, that line of thinking only works if Mickael Pietrus is up to task.
Davenport: I think Boston could win without either of them, but if I could only have one I’d pick Pietrus. This series will be won on perimeter defense and interior scoring, neither of which Allen really provides. It would be nice to have Pietrus available to check Marvin Williams and stop him from having one of those periodic huge games he has that just capture the frustration of his whole career.
Pina: For defensive purposes they’ll need at least one of them, but for this series it doesn’t really matter which. The Celtics will need to throw as many men at Joe Johnson as possible. Due to the possibility of problematic foul issues, Paul Pierce can’t guard Johnson for an entire game, and as great a defender as Avery Bradley is, Atlanta’s only All-Star loves to do work in the post which wouldn’t be an individual matchup Boston should be willing to test. With either Allen or Pietrus playing, the Celtics would be able to mix and match defensive assignments without the need for a double team. Also, bringing Ray Allen off the bench is still one of the most exciting options this team has going for it right now, and I can’t wait to see it back in action.
Jackson: I expect Kevin Garnett to neutralize Josh Smith, so this series will come down to Joe Johnson’s effectiveness by default. This means Ray Allen and Michael Pietrus’ defensive contributions are essential to the Celtics’ success. It’s pretty obvious that the size cutoff for Avery Bradley is somewhere between Dwyane Wade and Joe Johson, which means Johnson will own Bradley every chance he gets. It’s really up to Allen, Pietrus, and to some extent Paul Pierce.
Robb: You go at them where they are shorthanded, on the inside. While staying away from Josh Smith in the post, Boston should be able to work inside-out to help open up looks for their shooters, but they’ll also need Pierce and Rondo attacking the basket in order to keep the Hawks honest.
DeGama: It depends on the options presented by Larry Drew’s lineups. Their aren’t many easy answers for the Hawks so they may be forced to mix and match lineups all series long. Do they use Hinrich or Teague on Rondo? If Josh Smith checks Kevin Garnett, does Brandon Bass find himself with open jumpers all series long? If Josh Smith checks Brandon Bass, does KG end up dominating? Can anyone contain Paul Pierce?
Davenport: Inside. I’m desperately looking for someone to bet me that Pachulia’s going to appear in this series. If you’ve heard how Larry Drew talks about this injury, you’re totally coconuts to think he’s even dressing before Game 3 at the earliest. He was in a boot two days ago. That leaves Jason Collins or Ivan Johnson to start at center, and neither one can stop Rondo, KG, and Pierce from accessing the rim.
Pina: For some reason the Hawks are still perceived to be a young basketball team. With seven of their active players older than 30-years-old, they’re not. If I’m Doc Rivers, I force this team to shoot as many contested mid-range jumpers as possible, and then quickly attack in transition with Rondo as the primary ball handler (or, if he’s taking a breather, the equally fast Bradley). Three-pointers from a trailing Pierce, Pietrus, or Allen are always powerful enough to shift a close game’s momentum, and even though it sounds strange, I expect to see the Celtics run these Hawks right out of the playoffs. If that option fails, either throw the ball to Garnett on the block or have Pierce and Rondo relentlessly attack the rim in order to foul out the Hawks already frail front line.
Jackson: You attack them with defense. It seems obvious, but if the Celtics can make Joe Johnson and Josh Smith into isolation players, this series will be a breeze. In order to accomplish this, the Celtics will need to limit their transition opportunities and cut off their passing angles.
Robb: Atlanta is a far better offensive team at home (average five more points/game) and with Ray Allen likely sidelined or at least limited for the entire series, it’s a distinct possibility the Hawks could win this series. Atlanta will need Joe Johnson to at least live up to half of his contract, and they will need Josh Smith to outplay Kevin Garnett. Neither guy has a history of playing well against the C’s, but how well both of those guys play without Al Hortford in the lineup will dtermine if the Hawks can give the Celts a strong run.
DeGama: The obvious recipe for beating the Celtics involves attacking the boards, particularly with energetic big men, and forcing the C’s into playing long stretches of defense. That’s not going to be easy for Atlanta, a team that does little on the offensive glass and that will likely be without a couple of its key big men. Atlanta’s best approach probably involves forcing the Celtics into turnovers (something they do well and an area in which the C’s are vulnerable) and then hitting their jumpers. Interestingly enough, in these two categories, Boston and Atlanta are similar: they both shoot well and both turn over their opponents. I think these things will play a far bigger part in the eventual outcome than home-court.
Davenport: The only way I can conceive of the Hawks winning this series is by making a statistically improbable number of jump shots. The Celtics are going to force Smith and Johnson to settle for inefficient long twos. That’s written into this series in pen. If those shots don’t fall, Atlanta won’t get many second chances, because they were a poor offensive rebounding team even before they lost Pachulia and Horford. So they have to make the shots at a higher rate than historical percentages would indicate they can.
Pina: If Ray Allen doesn’t play—then Pierce’s toe falls off and Marvin Williams breaks Rondo’s arm with an awkward takedown—the Hawks might be able to squeak their way into the second round. Needless to say, I don’t think home court advantage poses that much of an advantage in this series.
Jackson: The Hawks need other-worldly performances out of Joe Johnson and Josh Smith. To be specific, Smith would need to elevate himself to a super elite player, capable of being both an Allstar Power Forward and Small Forward. In other words, the Celtics will win.
Robb: Celtics in 6. Boston steals one of the first two games in the ATL and holds home court for the rest of the way.
DeGama: Boston’s defense will prove too much for Atlanta, but the Hawks will play with enough energy to push the series to six games. New injuries, lingering injuries or unexpected recoveries from injuries could shift the dynamic but the Celtics have a spectacular defensive starting five, and they can and will ride that through the first round. Boston in 6.
Davenport: Boston in 6. Atlanta wins Games 2 and 5.
Pina: I like the Celtics in either four or five games. They’re simply the better team.
Jackson: I see this series going six. The Celtics are definitely the better team, but anyone can win two out of six.