The Boston Celtics will need a healthy Mickael Pietrus to defend the Atlanta Hawks' leading scorer Joe Johnson.
The Boston Celtics will begin their opening playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks in Atlanta on Sunday. Even though the Celtics finished with the 4th seed courtesy of winning the Atlantic Division, the Hawks (40-26) gained home court advantage with a better record than the Celtics (39-27) despite having a lower seed.
This is a team the Celtics knocked off in a seven game Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series in 2008, that led to the organization’s 17th title. At that time the Celtics were fully healthy and they had been the team to beat throughout the season. Now, the Celtics have an aging core mixed with some youth and athleticism. This team has battled injuries all season, but key players like Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo, and Mickael Pietrus have missed the past several games with nagging pain.
Meanwhile, the Hawks will not be getting their center, Al Horford, back from a torn pectoral muscle he suffered early in the season. Zaza Pachulia will be out for the early portion of the series. The Hawks have gotten center Jason Collins back and they have won four of their last six games.
There is some bad blood between these two opponents in recent seasons starting with their surprisingly close postseason series in 2008. Kevin Garnett and Pachulia have engaged in after the whistle shoving for the past few seasons. When Kirk Hinrich was with the Chicago Bulls, he got into a skirmish with Rondo when the Celtics topped the Bulls in their 2009 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series. In the teams’ first meeting this year on March 19th, Jeff Teague taunted Allen after a dunk early in the second half. The officials handed Teague a technical foul and the Celtics woke up to turn a double-digit deficit into a 79-76 victory. After the game, Garnett called Teague “a nobody.”
This should be an intriguing first round series, especially since all three games in the regular season were decided by five points or less.
Here are the key factors:
1. Avery Bradley/Pietrus/Allen or Sasha Pavlovic versus Joe Johnson.
Johnson is the leading scorer for the Hawks and he has come on late in the season with his hot shooting. The former first round pick of the Celtics is averaging 18.9 points per game and he is hitting 39% from beyond the arc. The Celtics don’t want to send Johnson to the charity stripe because he is nailing 84% of his free throws. Bradley has emerged into one of the best one-on-one defenders in the league with his ball pressure and ability to stay with his man off of picks. His size (6’2’’) is a disadvantage for the 6-7 Johnson who likes to shoot over the top of smaller defenders and come off screens for treys. The Celtics could use Pietrus more in his matchup on Johnson, especially in the final minutes. Pietrus’s length could provide problems for Johnson, but Pietrus has been battling a flare up in his surgically repaired knee over the past week after he had suffered a concussion on March 23rd in the 99-86 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers. Allen may not be available to play with bone spurs in his ankle. Allen has missed 15 of the past 20 games with this ankle injury. If Allen isn’t available even though Doc Rivers believes Allen will return, expect Pavolvic to fill in for Allen. Pavlovic is the same height as Johnson, but he isn’t as long or quick as Pietrus. Pavlovic will need to be physical against Johnson. Meanwhile Bradley has improved his three point shooting and he is knocking down outside jumpers consistently while displaying the ability to make quick cuts to the basket. Pietrus can stretch the opposing defenses if he is on from behind the three point line, which he seemed to be on a hot streak before he received the concussion. I