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No Rondo, but Boston still dangerous against Hawks in Game 2

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It can happen. For one game, the Boston Celtics can beat the Atlanta Hawks while Rajon Rondo sits at the hotel, suspended for bumping an official. It would Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett would need to bounce back with huge games, it would mean the Celtics bench would have to step up. But it could happen.

Or, it could go the other way — Boston could become disorganized on the offensive end, Boston could watch Joe Johnson get hot from three and knock down shots while Jeff Teague again controls the flow. Boston could well be down two games after Tuesday night.

How Boston plays without Rondo, and how the Hawks attack with him gone, is what will determine the outcome of Game 2. The Hawks already lead the series 1-0.

Boston is used to playing without Rondo, they did it for 13 games this season. They are not as good without him, not over the long haul. But the playoffs are a series of one-game acts in a much longer play, and for one night Boston can win and even this series.

For the Hawks, the way they won Game 1 did not seem sustainable — Josh Smith jacked up 14 jump shots longer than 16 feet from the rim and took just five shots inside the restricted area. Joe Johnson was 0-9 from three. You can say it’s good they won despite those things, but if Smith jacking up jumpers is the rule and not the exception it will come back to bite Atlanta. In Game 1 those missed shots were balanced out by Jeff Teague’s good play and 15 points, plus a quality night from Jason Collins. Yes, he played well, particularly on post defense against Garnett. If the Smith and Johnson keep shooting and missing from distance (in Smith’s case, just shooting from there) Atlanta will pay a price.

Teague needs to have another big game, Smith needs to get in the paint and Johnson needs to shoot better. Which will not be easy against a good Celtics defense, but the Hawks have a better game in them.

Boston needs Pierce to simply shoot better. He had 12 points on 19 shots and was 2-of-14 from beyond 16 feet — Josh Smith was a better jump shooter in Game 1. If that happens again Boston will lose.

Boston will start Avery Bradley at the point and Mickael Pietrus at the two. Rivers doesn’t really have a choice with those moves, but it’s the kind of thing that after the game could look brilliant or foolish.

Bradley and Pierce need to attack Jason Collins on the pick-and-roll — that was very successful for the Celtics in the fourth quarter of Game 1 and Boston needs to do more of it. Rondo is by far their best pick-and-roll ball handler, but somebody else needs to step up for them.

The Hawks need this game — go to Boston tied 1-1 with Rondo returning and it will be bleak for the Hawks. The need to be up 2-0. The veteran Celtics know if they can pull this one out they will have snatched home court and momentum. Lose and the Celtics are not dead but they have to win 4 out of 5.

It’s big for both teams. And without Rondo it is unpredictable.

NBA Playoffs: Hawks take Game 1, scoff at the notion of unsustainable offense

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After years of watching the Atlanta Hawks operate within a zone of improbability, you’d think we might be better prepared to see them again best a sure favorite.

Yet here we are, as dumbstruck as the now 0-1 Boston Celtics. Atlanta didn’t stumble into a revelation of efficiency or make a crucial late-season addition. They merely played the same illogical brand of basketball that has marked the franchise for the last half-decade, and by way of talent, energy, and flat-out good fortune, they pounced on a Celtics team that wasn’t quite ready to begin their playoff run. I won’t submit into cliché and say that the Hawks “just wanted it more,” than the Celtics, but they certainly wanted to work more than their breathless opponents; Boston practically began the game hunched over, while Atlanta started their night with a 31-point rampage. That contrast speaks for itself, and although the game eventually leveled out, that almost seems beside the point.

By the time Atlanta’s shots stopped falling at such a ridiculous rate, the damage had been done and the game had been sufficiently mucked up. Although the Celtics typically benefit from uglied games minimized to single-possession battles, the Hawks — with their grit and uncanny ability to hit contested jumpers — too have managed to make this style their own.

That approach may have been epitomized by the odd success of Atlanta’s makeshift rotation of bigs. Josh Smith still provided his expectedly dynamic contributions, but beyond Smith were Jason Collins — whom Hawks head coach Larry Drew again elected to start as a defensive counter — and Ivan Johnson, two big men skilled in basketball’s dark arts, and thrown into relevance due to injuries to Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia. The decision to play an offensive liability like Collins against one of the best defensive teams in the league was an odd decision by Drew, but one that ultimately paid off; Collins played a huge role in erasing Kevin Garnett during the first half, and in his own detour into the impossible, actually converted three field goals — a feat he’s accomplished just seven times in the last four seasons.

For his part, Johnson contributed a surprisingly beneficial four points and five rebounds. That output may not seem like much, but considering that the Hawks only managed 83 points total (in a win, mind you), that Johnson himself matched the scoring total of Boston’s entire bench, and that three of his rebounds came on the offensive end in a game where extra scoring opportunities were much-needed, his impact stretched well beyond what those underwhelming numbers might imply.

It was micro-level contributions like those of Collins and Johnson that fleshed out Atlanta’s otherwise baffling performance, and gave it the texture to make it something other than what it was. The Hawks were on top of the world for minutes at a time, but as is usually the case with this team, every brilliant play was eventually met with several highly questionable ones. Only zeal was left to fill in the gaps; whether by feeding off of an earned home crowd or drawing from a self-instilled bit of confidence, the Hawks approached this game as one they could steal. They stared down a team that had been playing brutally effective defense over the last several months, drove into the paint at their whim, and dared try to beat Boston with Collins in tow and spot-up jumpers from Smith as a consistent weapon.

And it worked, because these are the Hawks, and this is just what they do. They render discussions of offensive sustainability completely irrelevant with their style and audacity, and the mitigate the importance of defense by managing to create shots in spite of it. Nothing is easy and nothing is aesthetically pleasing, but they manage to win in spite of themselves and our better judgment.

Even if all we can do is shake our heads in disbelief, the Celtics are undoubtedly left doing the same.

Closing thoughts:

  • Just to make things that much worse for Boston, Rajon Rondo — the single Celtic who managed to put together a decent game — decided to fully embrace the game’s madness and make physical contact (a chest bump, but still) with official Mark Davis. Davis had all but killed Boston’s hopes for an endgame comeback with his correct determination that Josh Smith was fouled on what Rondo thought should have been a jump ball, and Rondo responded with harsh words and foolish action. The NBA doesn’t take any player making contact with an official lightly; it seems very likely that the Boston will be without both Ray Allen (ankle) and Rondo for Game 2, making things that much more fun for the struggling Celtics.
  • Joe Johnson did some nice work defensively against Paul Pierce, but was absolutely miserable as a spot-up shooter. Smith, Kirk Hinrich, and Jeff Teague were able to get some nice penetration against Boston’s defense, but when they looked to the perimeter, they often saw Johnson standing more than a foot behind the three-point line. Even with the understanding that nothing that these Hawks do makes sense, I’m not sure how to even approach the peculiarity of Johnson’s placement. (On a related note: Johnson finished 0-of-9 from beyond the arc.)
  • Smith is a tremendously fun — if curious — player, but I’ll never quite understand how he manages to have such great court awareness without having even the slightest bit of self-awareness. He’s a wonderful practitioner of the “extra pass,” and yet many of his shot attempts betray the basketball savvy that seems to inform his more altruistic efforts. You remain an enigma, Mr. Smith, and honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.