Blakely: Celtics vs. Hawks preview

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Blakely: Celtics vs. Hawks preview

BOSTON Often the biggest impact a bench can make isn't in how many points they score, but how few they allow their opponents. Tonight's Game 1 matchup between Boston and Atlanta features two teams who have not only had strong defensive play from their starters, but has also benefited from a much-needed lift defensively from their respective defensive units. Boston's backups gave up 26.5 points per game to their respective second-teamers, good enough so that only the Chicago Bulls (26.1) can say, 'Hah! We're better!" The Atlanta Hawks backups were more middle-of-the-pack, giving up 31.8 points per game which ranked 17th in the NBA.

However, you can count limiting bench points to the areas in which the Hawks were noticeably better at in the final week or so of the NBA season. While the Hawks have given up more bench points (33.1 per game) in the last 10 games than they did in the regular season, there's significant improvement relative to what the rest of the league did as Atlanta rose all the way up to No. 11 within that time frame.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR Tempo is going to be one of the keys to tonight's game. Boston will look to run when defensive stops are made, but otherwise the Celtics will be better served taking advantage of an Atlanta team that's missing its starting center (Al Horford) and potentially his replacement, Zaza Pachulia (foot). "He's sitting out there with a boot on his foot, so that's not a good sign," said Hawks head coach Larry Drew, when asked by CSNNE.com about Pachulia's availability. "I did not get an official word as far as availability, but we're proceeding as if he will not be available, for sure tonight."

MATCHUP TO WATCH - Paul Pierce vs. Joe Johnson: This is one of those games where Pierce might actually shoot poorly and still have a big game for the Celtics. As much as Boston relies on his scoring, they really need him to step his game up defensively against Johnson who is one of the more under-rated scorers in the NBA. "He's one of the better one-on-one players in the league," Pierce said. "He's right up there with (Oklahoma City's) Kevin Durant, Carmelo (Anthony of the New York Knicks) I'm going to have my work cut out for me. I just have to be ready to take on the challenge."
PLAYER TO WATCH - Most games, Josh Smith is a bit of a wild card. But against the Celtics, a playoff game, no one has a clue what he'll do tonight - including Smith. If he's playing well defensively and making good decisions with his shot selection, the C's will have a hard time keeping him from dominating the game. Joe Johnson's the scorer, but it's Smith who can catapult this team to the next round of the playoffs. "I

STAT TO TRACK - With Atlanta's lack of size in the frontcourt, they'll look to generate points in the paint with dribble-drive penetration. Lately, it's been working for them. They come into tonight's Game 1 matchup having averaged 43.1 points in the paint in the last 10 games. Meanwhile, the C's defense has not allowed teams many opportunities to hurt them with interior scoring. For the season, Boston is giving up just 34.3 points in the paint which ranks fifth. And in the last 10 games, the C's have a slight up-tick in that area by giving up 35 points per game.

WATCH: Celtics vs. Raptors

WATCH: Celtics vs. Raptors

Tune into CSN to watch the Celtics host the Raptors at TD Garden. You can also click here to watch the Celtics livestream presented by McDonald's on the NBC Sports App. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. with Celtics Pregame Live Presented by ACE Ticket.

- Game Preview: DeRozan, Lowry a challenge for Bradley, C's

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Celtics-Raptors preview: DeRozan, Lowry a challenge for Bradley, C's

Celtics-Raptors preview: DeRozan, Lowry a challenge for Bradley, C's

BOSTON – Avery Bradley doesn’t mind being a standout, but this is probably not what he had in mind. 

Injuries have ravaged the Boston Celtics’ starting five to the point where only one player, Bradley, has been with the first unit in all 22 games this season. 

Just like Bradley was looked upon to step his game up in the absence of Isaiah Thomas (right groin) at Orlando on Wednesday, he will once again be challenged to lead Boston (13-9) to victory tonight when the Thomas-less Celtics face the Toronto Raptors. 

Bradley’s emergence as a two-way talent this season has overshadowed at times what has been another season of elite play defensively. 

And he’ll need to be on top of his defensive game tonight against a Raptors All-Star backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. 

Both Lowry and DeRozan present a different kind of challenge for Bradley who will spend time defending each of them at various points during the game. 

Lowry has good size, strength and deceptive quickness in addition to an under-rated perimeter game that will keep Bradley on his toes for sure. 

This season he's averaging 20.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and a career-high 7.6 assists while shooting 42.9 percent on 3's which is also a career mark. 

And DeRozan is having the kind of season that might get him a few league MVP votes. 

His 28.0 points per game ranks fifth in the NBA, but making his numbers even more impressive is that unlike most guards DeRozan doesn’t generate much offense from three-pointers.

DeRozan averages 1.8 three-point attempts per game which is the fewest attempts among any player ranked among the league’s top-25 scorers.

The 6-foot-7 All-Star is the master of the mid-range game which accounts for 31.5 percent of the points he scores. And when he’s not shooting the mid-range, he’s working a defender in one-on-one iso-situations. 

That helps explain why 76.4 percent of his two-point made field goals are unassisted. 

But here’s the thing about Bradley. 

As much as we give him props for what he does defensively, it’s his offense that has put him on the map as a potential All-Star this season. 

Bradley is averaging a career-high 17.9 points while shooting 47.2 percent from the field. He’s also averaging a career-high 7.8 rebounds per game in addition to shooting a career-high 40.7 percent on 3's.

But for Bradley, individual accolades are only going to come his way by the Celtics winning games; preferably against above-average teams like the Toronto Raptors.

And that would make both Bradley and the Celtics stand out this season.