ATLANTA With Boston and Atlanta both ranking among the NBA's top-five scoring defenses, it comes as no surprise that Monday's matchup was a low-scoring 79-76 game, ultimately won by the Celtics.
It was yet another game in which it was Boston's offense that seemed to kick their already-solid defense into another gear.
After spending most of the first three quarters trailing, a dunk by Boston's Mickael Pietrus early in the fourth quarter gave the C's a 52-51 lead. From there, Boston scored 21 of the game's next 28 points to take a commanding 73-58 lead and would never trail afterward.
It was a great run, only to be followed by a less-than-stellar finish as Atlanta finished the game on a 16-6 run of its own.
Closing out quarters remains one of those areas in need of improvement for the Celtics (24-21).
"We didn't close out the game well," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "We were trying to milk the clock, and you can't milk the clock in an NBA game."
While that was certainly something the Celtics will look to improve upon moving forward, the fact that they are starting to win games - and not necessarily play their best basketball - bodes well for them in their quest to continue to improve their playoff seeding.
Because as much as they struggle at times to close out quarters, the C's defense continues to come up big - even if at times they need a jump-start from the offense.
There were a handful of keys to watch identified prior to the game. Here we'll see how those factors played out as the Celtics snapped a two-game losing skid with a grind-it-out, down-to-the-wire win in Atlanta.
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.
WHAT WE SAW: Good defense? Bad offense? Hard to say which was controlling the action as both teams struggled mightily to generate points. Transition baskets were few and far between for both teams as they combined to score just 18 fast-break points (10 for Boston, 8 for Atlanta). "I don't why it looks like we running in mud these days, but it's what it is," said Boston's Kevin Garnett. Fortunately for the C's, they faced a team in Atlanta whose running game isn't much better.
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 that's what they think, 'point' guard means. But they're good."
WHAT WE SAW: Rondo and Teague had about the same amount of points (Rondo with 10, Teague with 8), which is rarely a good thing for teams facing the Celtics. Because more often than not, Rondo's racking up more assists with Monday being no exception. Rondo had a game-high 13 assists - that's almost twice what he has averaged in his career, assists-wise, against the Hawks. Meanwhile, Teague had just three assists although it was his dunk on Ray Allen - and the technical he got afterward for staring down Allen - that folks remember. Well, most folks, anyway. Kevin Garnett was asked if Teague's dunk on Allen fire up the Celtics. KG's response? "I don't know who you talking about. That guy's a nobody."
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.
WHAT WE SAW: If there was a game-ball handed to who helped the Celtics win the most, Josh Smith would surely be on the short list. Forget for a minute that he had 10 points and missed 15 of his 20 shots from the field. But in the fourth, when the Hawks were clawing their way back into the game and were down 75-71 with about 37 seconds to play, Smith launches a 3-pointer that few other than Smith, thought had a prayer of going in. It didn't. Celtics win.
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.
WHAT WE SAW: In one of the most telling of all the hustle stats out there, the Hawks won this category, 13-4. It became especially important on a night when both teams struggled shooting the ball from the field. Boston connected on 39.2 percent of its shots, while Atlanta made 38.7 percent of its field goal attempts.