Celtics-Hawks Game 4 review: C's look to close series

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Celtics-Hawks Game 4 review: C's look to close series

BOSTON The Boston Celtics are not ready to look past the Atlanta Hawks, not with them needing another win to officially eliminate them from the playoffs.

The C's are in this position because they handled their business at home, a trend that dates all the way back to the all-star break.

Since then, the Celtics are 15-1 at home which includes a 101-79 Game 4 win over Atlanta that gave them a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.

During the regular season, the C's were 24-9 at home.

Only the Chicago Bulls and the Miami Heat had a better home mark among Eastern Conference teams.

With the No. 7-seed Philadelphia Sixers up 3-1 on the Derrick Rose-less (and for Game 4, Joakim Noah-less as well) Chicago Bulls, Boston may actually wind up with home court advantage in the next round of the playoffs.

The C's know they must first dispose of the Hawks.

As much as the C's love giving their home fans plenty to cheer about, they would just as soon close this series out in the Hawks' Philips Arena on Tuesday.

"It's a great opportunity," said Boston's Keyon Dooling. "I just feel like it won't be an easy task. We gotta come in with the right frame of mind. We have to be focused and we have to go down there and compete. They will be a desperate team. They don't want to go out like this. I think they'll come out clawing and scratching. We have to be prepared to match their energy."

Defending home court was indeed a motivating factor for the Celtics on Sunday. Here are some of the keys discussed prior to the game, and how they actually played out.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: No one knows for sure what Josh Smith will bring to the floor in his expected return to the Atlanta Hawks lineup. Before the left knee injury that forced him to miss Game 3, Smith was the best player in this series. It'll be worth keeping an eye on whether he can rekindle that individual dominance in Game 4 which as he put it, has to be approached with a must-win mentality. "I understand the importance of this game coming up (tonight)," Smith told CSNNE.com. "You can't play injured, but you can play a little hurt. My teammates need me out there, so I have to go out there and try to play the best I can play."

WHAT WE SAW: Josh Smith was clearly not himself on Sunday. Even at less-than-full strength, the 6-foot-9 forward was once again a player the Celtics had trouble containing. Smith finished with 15 points on 5-for-13 shooting, along with a game-high 13 rebounds. "Smooth (Smith) is an incredible player," Dooling said. "He's a guy who can affect the game in four or five statistical categories. But you could tell he wasn't at full strength, and we wanted to exploit that."
MATCHUP TO WATCH: Avery Bradley vs. Kirk Hinrich: If Avery Bradley (left shoulder) plays as expected, it'll be worth keeping tabs on whether the Hawks try to test that injured shoulder by putting Hinrich in a lot of pick-and-rolls with their bigs. If Bradley's shoulder becomes problematic, this is where it'll be most noticeable. Although Hinrich was scoreless (0-for-3) in Atlanta's Game 3 loss, the C's know his game well enough to understand that you can't leave him open too many times before he makes you pay.

WHAT WE SAW: Bradley only had six points, but five came during a critical stretch in the first quarter that broke a 6-all tie and set the Celtics' blowout win in motion. The left shoulder injury that made his availability a game-time decision, isn't going to get much better anytime soon. "It's something that I'll continue to get treatment on," Bradley said. "It'll get better eventually."

PLAYER TO WATCH: Paul Pierce has been giving the Celtics about as much as he can after three games, averaging 23 points, 7.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game. But he's doing it by logging a ton of minutes - 44.3 per game, to be exact. He hasn't averaged that many minutes in the playoffs since the 2002-2003 season when he averaged 44.5 minutes played in 10 playoff games. You have to wonder if at some point if all those minutes will catch up to Pierce and the C's.

WHAT WE SAW: We have seen Pierce have some pretty efficient nights, and Sunday's win was another one. He finished with a game-high 24 points, doing so in just under 17 minutes. He saw limited action in part because of the blowout nature of the game, but also because of a left knee injury that he suffered in the C's morning shoot-around and re-aggravated it during Sunday's game. "It's a little bit sore now," Pierce said. " So Doc (Rivers) just wanted me to take precautions tonight, especially when we had such a big lead."

STAT TO TRACK: Both of these jump-shooting teams will try and be the aggressor tonight. The clearest example of who is winning this battle can be seen in the number of free throw attempts. Boston is ninth among playoff teams in free throw attempts, with 23 per game. The Hawks are dead-last, with 18.7 per game.

WHAT WE SAW: Because the Celtics jumped out to such a commanding lead and the game wasn't all that close except for maybe the first three or four minutes, free throw shooting never developed into a factor in the game's outcome. The Hawks were 13-for-17 from the line compared to the Celtics who were 8-for-13.

Bradley's emergence as vocal leader speaks volumes about growth

Bradley's emergence as vocal leader speaks volumes about growth

BOSTON –  Terry Rozier was having a rough stretch where his minutes were limited and when he did play, he didn’t play particularly well.
 
Among the voices in his ear offering words of encouragement was Avery Bradley who knows all too well what Rozier was going through.
 
For all his time as a Celtic, Bradley has let his work on the floor do the talking for him.
 
But as the most tenured Celtic on the roster, his leadership has to be about more than just getting the job done, but servicing as a vocal leader as well.
 
For a player whose growth from one year to the next has been a constant, being a more vocal leader has been the one dynamic of his game that has improved the most during this past season.
 
And it is that kind of leadership that will carry into the summer what is a pivotal offseason for both Bradley and this Celtics franchise which was eliminated by Cleveland in the Conference finals, the first time the Celtics got that deep in the playoffs since 2012.
 
He is entering the final year of the four-year, $32 million contract he signed in 2014. And it comes at a time when his fellow Tacoma, Wash. native and backcourt mate Isaiah Thomas will likely hit free agency where he’s expected to command a max or near-max contract that would pay him an annual salary in the neighborhood of $30 million.
 
At this point in time, Bradley isn’t giving too much thought to his impending contract status.
 
Instead, he’s more consumed by finding ways to improve his overall game and in doing so, help guide the Celtics to what has to be their focus for next season – a trip to the NBA Finals.
 
While Celtics players have said their focus has always been on advancing as far into the playoffs as possible, it wasn’t until this past season did they actually provide hope and promise that Banner 18 may be closer than you think.
 
It was an emotional time for the Celtics, dealing with the unexpected death of Chyna Thomas, the younger sister of Isaiah Thomas, just hours before Boston’s first playoff game this season.
 
And then there were injuries such as Thomas’ right hip strain that ended his postseason by halftime of Boston’s Eastern Conference finals matchup with Cleveland.
 
But through that pain, we saw the emergence of Bradley in a light we have seldom seen him in as a Celtic.
 
We have seen him play well in the past, but it wasn’t until Thomas’ injury did we see Bradley showcase even more elements of his game that had been overlooked.
 
One of the constant knocks on Bradley has been his ball-handling.
 
And yet there were a number of occasions following Thomas’ playoff-ending injury, where Bradley attacked defenders off the dribble and finished with lay-ups and an occasional dunk in transition.
 
Among players who appeared in at least 12 playoff games this year, only Washington’s John Wall (7.9), Cleveland’s LeBron James (6.8) and Golden State’s Stephen Curry (5.2) averaged more points in transition than Bradley (4.7).
 
Bradley recognized the team needed him to be more assertive, do things that forced him to be more front-and-center which is part of his evolution in Boston as a leader on this team.
 
“It’s weird but players like Al (Horford) definitely helped me get out of my shell and pushed me this year to be more of a vocal leader,” Bradley said.
 
And that talent combined with Bradley doing what he does every offseason – come back significantly better in some facet of his game – speaks to how he’s steadily growing into being a leader whose actions as well as his words are impactful.