BOSTON It's a four-quarter game, but the Boston Celtics found out the hard way just how important a good start can be. That's exactly what the Atlanta Hawks got in Sunday's 83-74 win over Boston, a game in which they led by 13 after the first quarter.
The double-digit deficit was disappointing, especially when you consider how openly and freely the points seemed to be flowing for Atlanta in the first quarter. Based on their play, you would not have known that the Celtics are one of the NBA's top defensive teams this season.
"We pride ourselves on our defense, but we gave up 31 points to start the game on the road," said C's coach Doc Rivers. "The margin they built up in the first was just too great."
Said Paul Pierce: "They got everything they wanted early."
The slow start certainly was a key to the Celtics' Game 1 loss. Here are some other keys identified prior to the game, and how they actually played out.
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."
WHAT WE SAW: The tempo was very much to the Celtics' liking most of the night. But their inability to make shots early on or get defensive stops, put them in the kind of hole that they just simple could not dig themselves from underneath.
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."
WHAT WE SAW: Both Pierce and Johnson struggled shooting the ball, and instead were in the role of playmaker more often. Pierce had 12 points but shot 5-for-19 from the field to go with six assists, while Johnson was 3-for-15 and finished with 11 points and five assists. "I thought I had good looks tonight," Pierce said. "I just have to knock down the shots I get."
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.
WHAT WE SAW: Smith was as dominant as we've ever seen him against the Celtics. He led all scorers with 22 points and 18 rebounds. Hawks coach Larry Drew doesn't hide the fact that the coaching staff has probably been harder on Smith than any other player this season. "He's done a good job of mixing up his offense, whether he's inside, whether he's out," Drew said. "Every now and then, he'll take a crazy shot, which I'm willing to live with for all the things he does do well. He just played a monster game. We really fed off his energy at the beginning of the game."
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.
WHAT WE SAW: One of the more bizarre aspects of Sunday's game was how Boston was pretty effective in keeping the Hawks from scoring inside in the paint. The Hawks finished with 28 points in the paint compared to 36 for the Celtics. Sunday was indeed a game in which the Celtics felt that one bad quarter of play overwhelmed two-plus quarters of solid play that most nights, would be enough to get a victory. "We have to learn what we did right in the last three quarters and carry that through to Game two," said C's Paul Pierce.