With the Celtics now down 2-0 against the Hawks, many around the league and the city of Boston are beginning to question whether or not this team can win without one of its best players, Avery Bradley. It's clear that Boston's offense is out of sync and without AB, the lack of shooting on the team is being exposed by the Hawks suffocating defense. Via Zach Lowe of ESPN.com:
The trickle-down effects of Bradley's injury extended beyond coach Brad Stevens playing R.J. Hunter and Terry Rozier in meaningful postseason minutes as cogs in lineups that had never logged a single second. Stevens started Marcus Smart in Bradley's place, a smart move, since Smart is the only perimeter player besides Bradley with the wheels to track Jeff Teague; Evan Turner is too slow, Jae Crowder is a shell of himself due to an ill-timed ankle injury, and the Celtics don't want Isaiah Thomas chasing Atlanta's shifty point guards.
Lowe details further that the Hawks have a defense built to expose poor shooting teams and have presented an almost unsolvable matchup problem for Boston:
The Hawks' defense, No. 2 in the league behind the San Antonio Sharktopuses, is built specifically to strangle teams who can't shoot. The Hawks leverage the speed of Al Horford and Paul Millsap by having them attack pick-and-rolls out to the 3-point arc, with help defenders behind them flying into the paint to bump opposing big men rolling open toward the rim.
There is a leap of faith, and a deep team-wide trust, in leaving shooters open on the weak side to clog the paint. The Hawks hope their four-armed trap will force opposing ball-handlers to pick up their dribble far from the hoop, and search for any release valve. That outlet won't be in the paint. It will be a temporarily open player, all the way across the court, and that ball-handler -- say a little guy like Thomas -- will have to lob a brutal long-distance pass to get the ball there.
Teams with poor shooting can't expose the Hawks that way. Atlanta buries those teams, and without Bradley, the Celtics go from a so-so shooting team to perhaps the worst one in the league outside Philly and Memphis. Whenever one Celtic got some traction toward the rim, he found an extra body walling off his path -- as Kent Bazemore does here, veering away from Turner to muck up Smart's driving lane.
As much as I do not like what Lowe is saying, it's absolutely true. The Celtics are not a great shooting team and with one of their best scorers/shooters out, they are limited on the offensive end. The Hawks strategy is to pack the paint and to leave the Celts' perimeter players open. The only player that really can take the defense off the dribble is Isaiah Thomas and with no decent shooters on the outside to bail him out, Thomas has been relegated to taking tough shots with defenders draped around him.
At many points we saw Stevens call post-ups for Amir Johnson and while he had a good game, that's not a sustainable strategy to win a series. Marcus Smart tried to get the pick-and-roll going but he seems to be more concerned about drawing contact to initiate a whistle from the officials rather than making the smart play. Additionally, Jae Crowder's shooting ability has seemed to disappear and he hasn't gotten much going to basket either. Stevens even put in rookies RJ Hunter and Terry Rozier and while Rozier played OK, having to rely on your rookies to win a playoff game is not a recipe for success. All of these negative aspects seem to spell doom for the Celts, but there is some hope and Lowe briefly addresses that as well:
On offense, the Celtics have paths to better shooting. They could play Jerebko more at power forward, both alongside Crowder -- their primary small-ball 4-- and when Crowder rests. If Olynyk comes back, they could triple-down on shooting by playing Jerebko and Olynyk together -- with Olynyk as a shooting center, a look Boston has used often this season.
If Olynyk can't return, Stevens might revisit a look he flashed briefly at the end of first half in Game 2: a super-duper small lineup, with Jerebko at center, and Crowder at power forward. Boston busted that out now and then in the second half of last season, when most of their traditional bigs were injured, and discovered that it worked with Thomas driving the bus -- at least in small doses.
One wrinkle of hope is that Kelly Olynyk will likely be back for Game Three and his return adds some much needed shooting for the Cs. Using a lineup that stretches the floor with big shooters like Jerebko and Olynyk could open up some holes on the Hawks' defense that would require them to move their bigs outside of the paint, leading to easier buckets inside. However, it is much easier said than done because if Boston isn't hitting those good looks, then the Hawks could continually put pressure on our shooters.
While all hope seems lost right now, I do believe that the Celtics will perform much better at home and must come out firing in Game Three. They've gotten blown out in the first quarter in both of the first two games and cannot afford to go down early against the Hawks. All things considered, the Celts have played very good defense against the Hawks, which has given them a fighting chance late in these games. Unfortunately, because of their struggles on offense, they haven't been able to capitalize on Atlanta's mistakes. Now, with their lives on the line, the Celtics must come out and give it their all for 48 minutes in order to get back into this series. With the raucous Garden crowd backing them up, Boston should perform much better on the beautiful parquet floor.
In the words of Red Sox folk hero Kevin Millar, "Don't let us win tonight. This is a big game".
Image Credit: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Follow Kevin Yazhari on Twitter @KevKevYazhari Kevin Yazhari 4/21/2016 11:48:00 AM Tweet Edit