In my story for today’s AJC, I noted that it’s never opposing players who write off the Celtics as too old. Maybe that’s only because they don’t give a famously prickly Boston group any extra motivation but my feeling is it’s genuine respect (and wariness).
Marvin Williams seemed genuinely confused as to why anyone would say such a thing about a team with three shoo-in Hall of Famers and another player on track to follow them. LeBron James and Chris Bosh cited those credentials, too, when brushing off the washed up theory.
So if the Hawks end up drawing Boston in the playoffs, which is a very real possibility, it would set up an interesting series. And that’s not just because of the past skirmishes between these teams.
Remember, part of the Hawks’ rationale for keeping the proverbial “core” together for another run this year was because the owners and Rick Sund believed this group had built up some scar tissue from their past playoff failures. The Hawks are just 2-12 in the East semifinals over the past three years but management hopes the incremental advances–pushing Boston to seven games, beating (pre-SuperFriends) Miami, avenging the Orlando beatdown, winning Game 1 at Chicago–is part of a hardening process that will pay off this season.
And so what better way to test that approach than to tangle with the Celtics, the most hardened team of them all? Orlando and Indiana are better matchups for the Hawks but beating Boston would give them more credibility going forward. That would be true even in any case but it’s especially true now because the Celtics are playing better than anyone in the East.
They know how to win. They’ve been in a number of situations where they know how to deal with injury. They’ve kind of changed their lineup with [Avery] Bradley starting, [Ray] Allen off the bench. They are a veteran ball club, they have been in those trenches long enough they know how to win. We have to play with the consistency we’ve been seeking all year. It’s going to be playoff energy, playoff intensity. We are going to have to bring our ‘A’ game. It will be a big challenge for us. . . .
[Paul] Pierce is a guy who has always been kind of a thorn in our side. You know what Ray Allen is capable of doing. You know [Kevin Garnett] is capable of solid games. [Rajon] Rondo has shown to be a solid point guard in this league that can put up phenomenal numbers. They seem to find a way. People always kind of dismiss them because they’ve played a lot of games but when the smoke clears, they are always there. That’s just a testament that these guys have been in the trenches enough times. I will say it again: They know how to win. They are not going to beat themselves. We have to go in there and we have to put four solid quarters together.
Boston has allowed an astounding 92.9 points per 100 possessions over its past 15 games, according to NBA.com’s advanced stats tool, a figure which has propelled it to the league lead in defensive efficiency.
Let me help you try to grasp the significance of that 92.9 figure. The league average in offensive efficiency in that stretch shot up to 103.0, as every NBA team (except the ones playing Boston) found its post-lockout offensive rhythm.
So in the past 15 games, Boston’s defensive efficiency is a full 10 points better than the league average, a feat which nobody has done for a full season since … actually nobody has ever done that. Not even the 2008 champions, who were only 7.98 points better. . . .
When Bradley and Garnett play together, Boston gives up 88.8 points per 100 possessions, allows 38.8 percent shooting and forces nearly one turnover for every assist. This is scary stuff, and it’s not one of those small-minute flukes, either — they’ve played 658 minutes together.
You think that’s impressive? How’s this: When Rondo and Bradley play together, opponents average 82.2 points per 100 possessions.
That’s nearly 20 points below the league average. It’s in 271 minutes, so it’s not as robust a sample as the data with Garnett, but good heavens. The Celtics barely need to bother with an offense if the D is going to provide this kind of domination.
The Heat finally figured out Boston’s D only to watch the Celtics make a series of big shots and regularly get to the free-throw line. The Celtics know how to find a way, and it takes either a very talented or a very tough team to overcome it. It helps to be both, like the Celtics.
By winning tonight, the Hawks can provide some evidence that they are on Boston’s level now that they are relatively healthy. That statement would be mitigated somewhat by the schedule, same as Boston’s W at Philips came against a depleted Hawks roster and Atlanta’s third game in four nights.
There would be no such asterisks if the Hawks vanquished the Celtics in what certainly would be a physical, low-possession, grinder. It would not be the ultimate goal but it would be the best evidence yet that the Hawks are truly hardened.
Michael Cunningham, Hawks beat