It's been said that a team never establishes itself in a postseason series until it wins a game on the road. Thus far in the Hawks-Celtics first round playoff series, neither team has done so. However, Celtics coach Brad Stevens made the series' first significant and successful adjustments, leading to a Game 3 victory in Boston.
Following Game 2 in Atlanta, Jae Crowder summed up the Hawks' defensive approach in the first two games.
"They fly around," said Crowder. "They are very physical on your cuts. They went under a lot of things, made us make shots and jammed the paint on our drives and protected the rim like they've done in this whole stretch where they've been the best defense in the league."
One glance at Boston's stat sheet for the season makes an obvious strategy jump out: With Isaiah Thomas averaging 22.2 points and no other Celtic averaging more than Avery Bradley's 15.2, the idea is to make Thomas' life hell and make his less-prolific teammates beat you. Stevens' rotations in the first two games lent themselves to this strategy with the earthbound Jared Sullinger in the starting lineup for both games and bricky Marcus Smart replacing Bradley in the starting lineup for Game 2.
Sullinger's struggles in this series were entirely predictable. Paul Millsap and Al Horford are multi-talented and extremely mobile. One glance at Boston's net rating for the first two games made Stevens' front court adjustment for Game 3 equally predictable. The Celtics were outscored by 17.8 points per 100 possessions with Sullinger on the floor while surrendering a team-worst 112.1 points per 100. Meanwhile, in Jonas Jerebko's 37 minutes, the Celtics were plus-13.2 per 100 and limited opponents to 85.5 points per 100, Boston's second-best defensive rating.
Although Smart scored 15 points in Game 1 on 50% shooting from the field (5-for-10) and three-point range (3-for-6), his hot shooting did not continue in Game 2 as a replacement for Bradley. As an emergency starter, Smart was limited to 1-for-11 from the field, including 1-for-6 from three-point range, and recorded a game-worst minus-20 in the box score. Since Smart performed much better off the bench in Game 1 than as a starter in Game 2, moving Evan Turner into the starting lineup for Game 3 seemed like another wise adjustment by Stevens.
The moves paid immediate dividends. The Hawks were unable to sag off other players and focus on limiting Thomas with Jerebko -- who shot 39.8% from three during the regular season -- pulling an Atlanta big man out of the lane. Although Jerebko has shot just 2-for-9 (22%) from three in the series, he's too dangerous to play off of. Meanwhile Turner is shooting just 1-for-6 (17%) from deep in the series. However, his presence as a starter gave the Celtics a secondary ball handler, which allowed Thomas to play off the ball at times. Turner recorded 17 points and seven assists in the Game 3 victory as the Hawks struggled to respond to Stevens' lineup shuffle.
After averaging just 4.4 points during the regular season, Jerebko rewarded Stevens' confidence by notching 11 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and zero turnovers in 37 minutes. He recorded a game-high plus-14 in the box score and the Celtics outscored the Hawks by 16.2 points per 100 possessions with Jerebko on court. For the series, Boston is plus-14.6 in Jerebko's 74 minutes. The only other Celtic with a positive net rating is R.J. Hunter (plus-15 in a limited 25 minute sample).
For Atlanta, it falls to Mike Budenholzer to respond in kind to Stevens' successful Game 3 tweaks. For Coach Bud, it almost certainly won't involve tinkering with the starting lineup. For Atlanta, the most obvious adjustment would be to shorten the bench. Every Hawk with double-digit minutes in the series has a positive net rating except Dennis Schröder (minus-5.1), Tim Hardaway Jr. (minus-20.6) and Mike Muscala (minus-26). Schröder is indispensable. After a rough first two games, Schröder was second in net rating for the Hawks in Game 3.
Hardaway and Muscala, however, could see their minutes curtailed. Muscala appeared to be coming on toward the end of the regular season but that hasn't translated to the playoffs. He played a key role for the Hawks against the Wizards in last season's playoffs, taking minutes away from Mike Scott. But in these playoffs, Scott has been Atlanta's biggest difference-maker off the bench.
In Scott's 59 minutes for the series, the Hawks are outscoring the Celtics by 10.9 points per 100, a rotation-best net rating. Atlanta is effectively 38 points per 100 possessions better with Scott on court in the series and Muscala on the bench. The Hawks are scoring a microscopic 57 points per 100 with Muscala and Hardaway on court.
Game 4 will be huge for the momentum of the winning team. If the Celtics draw even, it becomes a best-of-three series. If the Hawks prevail, the Celtics would need to win three straight to survive. With those kind of stakes, it wouldn't be surprising to see Budenholzer shorten his bench by extending minutes for Schröder, Scott and Thabo Sefolosha while also leaning heavily on the starters.
The Hawks must also hope to heat up from long range. Although the Hawks are known as a jump shooting team, Atlanta is hitting just 27.5% from three in the series while the Celtics are shooting a respectable 33.5%.
"Three pointers are the equalizer in this league," said Bazemore after Game 2.
Thus far the Hawks haven't shot well enough to deliver a knockout blow to the Celtics. Atlanta shot just 9-for-36 (25%) from three in Game 3 while Boston shot 11-for-32 (34.4%). For the series, the Hawks have three players shooting over 40% from three, including Al Horford (44.4%), Mike Scott (44.4%) and Kyle Korver (43.5%). However, the rest of the roster is a combined 7-for-50 (14%).
Bazemore, who has shot 4-for-18 from deep (22%), predicted that nothing would be easy in Boston.
"We're going into one of the toughest playoff environments ever."