Of all the first-round series in either conference, this is the most evenly matched. Both teams won 48 games during the season, but more than that they play similar styles, and both are very well coached. This is going to be a series for the people who like chess matches in the playoffs — there will be smart adjustments of versatile rosters on both sides.
You’ll have plenty of time to watch it — this series is going to go on for a while.
There are three questions that will determine the series.
Can Brad Stevens get Isaiah Thomas room to operate against the Hawks? Thomas is an All-Star and the engine of the Celtics offense — he is the one guy who can consistently create shots for himself and others. However, the Hawks defense — second best in the NBA over the course of the season — made life difficult for Thomas during the regular season when he averaged four turnovers a game against Atlanta. The Hawks long, rangy defenders led by Jeff Teague (a solid defender when focused) blew up the Boston pick-and-roll fairly often.
Can Stevens draw up sets and find ways to get Thomas room to drive the lane, disrupt the defense, and just be himself? He needs to, the Celtics don’t have anyone else who can create shots of the same quality.
Will Boston punish Atlanta on the offensive glass, or will Paul Millsap own it? Atlanta is not a good rebounding team — they were the third worst in the NBA overall last season in rebound percentage, just below the Lakers. They intentionally don’t chase offensive rebounds in an effort to get back on defense and kill the opposition transition (as is the trend in the NBA), but they also were sixth worst in grabbing defensive rebounds. It’s a known weakness. The Celtics have some players — Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk, and others — who like to battle inside, and Boston was 10th in the NBA in grabbing offensive boards this past season. Look for Boston to try to get some easy putbacks and second chances by focusing more on offensive rebounds.
They need to do something because during the regular season All-Star Millsap owned the Boston front line. The Celtics cannot afford a repeat of that, they have to find a way to keep him in check.
Will the Hawks knock down their open looks? The book on defending the Hawks in the playoffs is out there, David Blatt and the Cavaliers wrote it last May in the Conference Finals. Go under picks, lay off on the pick-and-roll, and dare Millsap, Teague, Al Horford and the rest of them (except Kyle Korver) to beat you with jump shots. You can look at the shot charts for this past season and say those guys can hit those shots — Millsap shoots just under 40 percent from the top of the key area — but they couldn’t knock them down when it mattered last postseason. You can be sure Steven’s defensive strategy to start will be to make them hit those shots. If they do, the Celtics will need to adjust, and that will open up the drives the Hawks prefer, but first they must prove they can knock down the midrange (and threes) they will get.
Prediction: Hawks in seven. But if the Celtics win this, it’s not an upset in my mind, it could go either way.