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April 30, 2012
Playoff Prospectus
Learning Lessons

by Bradford Doolittle

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at Atlanta 83, Boston 74 (Atlanta leads 1-0)
Pace: 85.3
Offensive Ratings: Atlanta 97.3, Boston 86.7

We saw two games, really, on Sunday. The first one featured the Hawks playing exactly how they need to play to advance beyond the first round. The second one showed just how ugly it's got to get for the Celtics to succeed at this point in downward arc.

Atlanta came out of the gate fast, building a 29-12 lead on the strength of an ultra-aggressive approach. The Hawks were running the floor and even when the fastbreak wasn't there, they were pushing into the attack before the Celtics' halfcourt defense could get set. Some of the burst was fool's gold. Atlanta sank three treys and went 4 for 8 on long twos. But the Hawks also hit 5 of 6 in the paint and added four points from the line. The approach was encouraging.

After that, you could see the Hawks' offensive efficiency drop in conjunction with a slowing pace. A very slowing pace -- the pace factor for the fourth quarter was 80.8, a veritable crawl. After scoring 1.34 points per possession in the opening period, the Hawks didn't crack .90 in a quarter the rest of the game. Atlanta had just one assist on 20 fourth-quarter possessions.

Joe Johnson had a particularly poor game for the Hawks in box score terms. He was 3 for 15 from the field in 38 minutes, taking all but four of his shots from 16 feet and out. On long twos and threes, Johnson was just 1 of 11. But somebody's got to create shots to open things up, and Johnson posted a game-best +24 in the plus-minus column. In fact, Atlanta's starting lineup posted a +13 as a unit. The Celtics aren't going to win this series if their starters don't beat Atlanta's starters though, on Sunday, Boston's bench did outscore their counterparts.

But, hey, the Hawks won the game, and perhaps the slogging nature of the fourth quarter worked in their favor, contributing to the frustration of Rajon Rondo that eventually got him kicked out of Game One, and perhaps suspended for at least one contest.

Sure, you want to see the Hawks beef up their shot selection, but we've been pleading about that for six years. Atlanta took 47 jump shots on Sunday. In the second half, the Hawks were six of 23 outside the lane. Down the stretch, the Hawks got just two shots in the lane as the Celtics cut into the lead. Jeff Teague sank a runner, and Kirk Hinrich missed a turnaround. That's it. Other those plays, Atlanta went 2 for 5 on long jumpers as their lead shrank.

Luckily for the Hawks, the Celtics' offense was bad as advertised, which saved Atlanta even after Boston's elite defense turned up the screws.

The Celtics shot 0 for 11 from 3-point range for the game. Zero. For. Eleven. According to an ESPN stat I saw, the Hawks contested 21 of the Celtics' 27 catch-and-shoot opportunities, a rate of 78 percent. Typically, the Celtics have 46 percent of those plays contested, and that's the bread-and-butter of their jump-shooting offense. Boston shot 58 percent in the paint, but got just 31 shots there. The Celtics were 14 for 51 (27 percent) outside the lane.

It's really no surprise. The Celtics weren't 24th in offense during the season by accident -- this is not a good offensive squad. And Atlanta's defense is pretty good and as shown by that contested shots stat, it was in good form on Sunday. Given the Celtics' collective lack of punch, it's pretty remarkable that Rondo was able to put up 20 points and 11 assists which, if you want to be crude about it, accounted for about 57 percent of the Celtics' offense. More on that in a bit.

The most fascinating matchup of the night, though it wasn't often head-to-head, was that of Kevin Garnett and Josh Smith. Smith put up 15 points, 11 rebounds and shot 7 for 12 during Atlanta's sparkling first half. After the break, the bad Smith surfaced. He hit just 1 of 8 from the field after halftime, and of course six of those misses were on long twos. I'm convinced that Smith has whatever malady ailed Guy Pierce in "Memento".

Garnett's game also had the split-personality aspect. He hit just 1 of 9 during the first two quarters and every one of those shots was a long two. After the break, Garnett came alive. He hit 7 of 10 from the floor and scored 18 points. His inside-outside balance was much improved, with five shots each in the lane and outside it. The degree to which Smith and Garnett learned from their jump-shooting adventures may say a lot about how this series unfolds.

A possible Rondo suspension may play a role in Tuesday's Game Two, and perhaps Game Three. The standard suspension for that sort of quasi-incidental contact with an official is one game. But Rondo has a track record -- he was banned from two games earlier this season for throwing the ball at a referee. The Celtics and Hawks were pretty closely matched as it was and given Allen's questionable availability, Boston may not be able to withstand Rondo's absence.

(Note: Data from MySynergySports.com and NBA.com/Stats were used in this piece.)

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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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