For the third straight season, the Celtics have drawn themselves a favorable first round match-up.
Two years ago, they opened with the Heat (starring Dwyane Wade and a mannequin wearing a Jermaine ONeal jersey) and disposed of them in five games. Last year, they took on an injured and dysfunctional Knicks team, and swept them in four. This year, its Atlanta. And while I dont imagine the series will be quite as easy as some have predicted, the Celtics should once again come out on top.
Here are five reasons why:
1. Atlanta's front court
With Al Horford very likely out, and Zaza Pachulia still questionable, the Hawks are left with only three players taller than 6-9: 36-year-old Erick Dampier (whos literally scored only two points all season), Vladimir VladRad Radmanovic (whos 6-10, but takes 69 percent of his shots from three-point land and is also Vladimir Radmanovic) and seven-footer Jason Collins (whose greatest achievement is that hes had a better career than his brother Jarron.)
Aside from that three-headed monster, the Hawks have a pair of 6-9 athletes in Josh Smith and Marvin Williams, but both are addicted to the perimeter. Lastly, theres 6-8 Ivan Johnson, a bit of a wild card who makes up for his lack of size with pure, unbridled insanity but hes more of an enforcer than he is a guy with any semblance of low post talent.
Does this mean the Celtics are going to dominate Atlanta on the boards and in the post? Probably not. But we can feel pretty confident that the Celtics will not BE DOMINATED on the boards or in the post, and thats just as essential.
2. The Hawks cant guard Paul Pierce.
The two most natural match-ups are Williams and Joe Johnson, and while both guys (especially Williams) are capable defenders, neither is what you'd call a "stopper" and neither can consistently hang with The Truth.
In fact, the biggest obstacle standing between Pierce and a huge offensive series might be his toe. I know. I know. No ones 100 percent at this time of year. But its also been two weeks since the original injury, and less than 24 hours since he re-aggravated it.
Either way, I'm expecting a big series from Paul especially when it comes to winning time.
3. Avery Bradley can guard every one
The Hawks will likely play Joe Johnson at shooting guard and try to exploit his height advantage over Bradley.
I don't think it will work.
Sure, Johnson will still score, and maybe even put up a few big numbers. That's what he does he's Joe Johnson! But with Bradley shadowng his every move, Johnson's life on the court will be a living hell. Nothing will come easy, and I'd be shocked if he's able to find any kind of consistent rhythm. (If he does, it's not pretty. Johnson scored 25 points on 14 occasions this season, in those games, the Hawks were 12-2.
And don't be surprised if you see Bradley check Jeff Teague from time-to-time. In fact, I'd love to see Doc strategically mix this into the game plan. For one, it will be nice to give Rondo a break on the defensive end; have him spend a few possessions standing in the corner with Kirk Hinrich instead of chasing around a 23-year-old speedster. Plus, you know it will drive the Hawks crazy. Why not let Teague get comfortable bringing the ball up, and then sporadically unleash the beast on him? Have him catch the ball and have to think to himself: "Hey, wait a second, why is there suddenly another player inside my uniform?"
If Bradley can wreak havoc on the perimeter, with KG dominating the middle, and Rondo available to freelance and take some chances, the Hawks offense will fall apart.
4. Rajon Rondo in the first round of the playoffs.
Not counting that first year against Atlanta (when he was still coming into his own and was for some awful reason still being benched in favor Sam Cassell), Rondos averaged 17.9 points, 11.3 assists and 7.3 rebounds in the first round of the playoffs. It's the annual highlight of his season. And assuming that both teams will be leaning on small ball, creating a ton of open lanes and getting out in transition, there's no reason to believe that Rondo won't pick up right where he left on last year in New York.
After all, all the playoff games are on National TV, right? RIGHT?!
5. Nothing has changed with the Hawks
We're four years removed from that ridiculous first round series, but we're still waiting for the young, up-and-coming Hawks to put it all together. At this point, it's fair to assume that they never will. Josh Smith has improved, but barely matured and now he wants out. Johnson still has the fire and on-court demeanor of a librarian. Marvin Williams is in year seven, and still hasn't figured it out. Mike Bibby's veteran presence has been replaced by Teague's fiery inexperience. Horford's great, but he's gone. Atlanta's no better than they were in 2008.
And neither are the Celtics. But while they may not be the same team that raised Banner 17, they're still more of a team than Atlanta is. And for the second time in the last five years, they'll face off with the Hawks, and come out on top.