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.

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