Blakely's Celtics-Hawks preview

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Blakely's Celtics-Hawks preview

ATLANTA When you think of the Atlanta Hawks, visions of Josh Smith dunking on somebody, or Joe Johnson splashing a 3-pointer usually come to mind. But when you start to seriously look at this Hawks team, you come to find that they can defend really well.

In fact, Atlanta's scoring defense is ranked fifth in the NBA at 92.1 points given up per game.

That's just two spots behind the Celtics, who are giving up 90.9 points per game.

"They've been good; they've been good (defensively) for several years," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "We do always think about them, the high-flying act and all that stuff. They're just a solid basketball team."

Rivers points to Atlanta center Zaza Pachulia as being an important part of the Hawks success defensively this season.

"Zaza has really helped them with the physicality," Rivers said. "You think about it, they've done this without (Al) Horford which I think is even more impressive. They're a solid basketball team."

Horford had pectoral surgery in January that was expected to keep him out 3-4 months.

Regardless of the opponent, scoring for the Celtics (23-21) -- much like their record -- has been an up and down affair all season.

Despite ranking just 26th in the NBA in scoring (91.4 points per game), Boston has actually been among the NBA's best at generating points in the third quarter.

The C's 24.4 points scored in the third quarter ranks ninth in the league.

Scoring at a comparable clip won't be easy against an Atlanta Hawks team that defensively, has been at their best in the second half of games. The Hawks are giving up the second-fewest points (21.8 points) in the third quarter, and are giving up a league-low 22.1 points in the fourth.

Here's a rundown of a few other keys to watch as the Celtics try and snap a two-game losing streak against the Atlanta Hawks in the first of three meetings this season.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR -- The Celtics are the more rested team with the Hawks having played at Cleveland on Sunday night, so look for the C's to try and get out and run early. If they do, that means they're doing a decent job on the defensive boards which is essential to their ability to score in transition. The C's would like to improve on their 12.4 fast break points per game average, which ranks 20th in the NBA. What the C's do in terms of fast break points is literally an average night for Atlanta's transition defense. The Hawks rank sixth in fewest fast break points allowed, at 12.4 per game.

MATCHUP TO WATCH -- Rajon Rondo vs. Jeff Teague: You would think this matchup would be heavily in favor of the Celtics. As good as Rondo has been against most teams, he has historically had his problems against the Hawks. Since the 2008-2009 season, Rondo has averaged 7.4 assists in nine games against the Hawks. Only his 6.3 assists per game average against the New Orleans Hornets is lower in that span. As for Teague, he falls in line with many of today's point guards who are more about scoring than distributing the ball. "They're trying to score points," C's coach Doc Rivers said of Atlanta's point guards. "I think hat's what they think, 'point' guard means. But they're good."

PLAYER TO WATCH -- Because of his unpredictable but impressive above-the-rim game, Atlanta's Josh Smith is a hard player to not watch when the Hawks play. The Celtics will try and keep him from having a big game offensively, which has indeed been the case throughout his career. Smith averages 12.1 points against Boston. There are three teams (Cleveland, New Orleans and San Antonio) in which he has a lower scoring average.

STAT TO TRACK -- Second-chance opportunities will be huge in tonight's game, because neither team is very good at getting them. The Celtics are hands-down the worst rebounding team in the NBA, struggles that extend on the offensive boards where they average 8.3 per game which, not surprisingly, is dead-last in the NBA. Meanwhile, Atlanta has had its share of struggles on the offensive glass as well. They average 10.3 offensive rebounds per game which ranks 26th in the NBA.

Blakely: Thomas isn't a starter, but new All-Star voting is an improvement

Blakely: Thomas isn't a starter, but new All-Star voting is an improvement

BOSTON – There’s certainly some disappointment among Celtics Nation that Isaiah Thomas just missed out on being an All-Star starter in the East.

But one thing we can certainly see with the new voting system … it works way better than the old way of choosing starters.

This was the first year that the NBA decided to allow current NBA players as well as a select panel of media choose who the starting five in the Eastern and Western Conferences would be.

The fan vote would count for 50 percent while media and players would each represent 25 percent of the final tally.

From there, the players would receive a fan ranking, a media ranking and a player ranking.

Because of the aforementioned breakdown – fans count for 50 percent while media and players represent 25 percent of the vote – the fan ranking would be counted twice while the media and player rankings would be counted once.

Let’s look at Isaiah Thomas’ situation which ultimately came down to him and Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan for the final starting spot in the backcourt.

Thomas was fourth in the fan voting, second in the player voting and first among guards in the media voting. So when you add the fan voting (4 *2) + player voting (2 *1) + media voting (1*1), you get a total of 11 which is then divided by 4 to arrive at a score of 2.75.

Now let’s look at DeRozan.

He was third in the fan voting, third in the player ranking and second in the media voting among guards. So his score when you add the fan voting (3*2) + player voting (3*1) + media voting (2*1), you get a total of 11 which when divided by 4 brings you to a score of 2.75 – same as Thomas.

The tiebreaker was the fan vote which meant DeRozan and not Thomas, would get the starting nod in next month’s All-Star game.

As much as it may suck that Thomas lost out because of this system, he would not have had a shot at being a starter under the old system in which the fans were the ones to pick starters.

In fact, it would have been Chicago’s Dwyane Wade in the starting lineup under the old system.

No disrespect to D-Wade, but he has not had an All-Star worthy season. And had the old system been in place, he would be an all-star and thus take up a roster spot of another player who frankly, is more deserving.

And if you take a glance out West, they too would have had a starter who has not had an All-Star caliber season.

Golden State’s Zaza Pachulia finished second in the voting among Western Conference forwards, fueled in large part to his home country, Georgia, voting early and often for him. Because of the media and player voting, Pachulia wound up sixth among Western Conference big men which is still too high when you consider some of the players behind him – Memphis’ Marc Gasol, Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns, San Antonio’s LaMarcus Aldridge and Los Angeles Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan – who are all having better seasons.

While no one would say this new system is perfect, considering how this year’s voting would have panned out under the old rules, this change by the league is a good one that should stick around.

NOTE: I was among the media panelists selected by the NBA to vote for this year’s All-Star starters. My selections in the East were Cleveland’s LeBron James, Kevin Love and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo in the frontcourt with Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving and Boston’s Isaiah Thomas in the backcourt. My Western Conference selections were Kevin Durant of Golden State, Anthony Davis of New Orleans and Kawhi Leonard of San Antonio in the frontcourt, with Houston’s James Harden and Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook in the backcourt.