- David Thorpe, NBA
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Ask yourself this question: What happened in the first round of the title fight in "Rocky"? Most people remember that Rocky got knocked down, only to get up and go the distance. But they all are wrong. It was Apollo Creed who got decked, only to get up and ultimately win the fight and keep his crown. The Celtics players and coaches know exactly how Apollo feels right now and they better get up and plan on going the distance, ready to fight to the end, or they'll never reclaim the title that they've longed for since Larry Bird left the building.
A boxing reference seemed appropriate, as it was Al Horford who showed a version of "When We Were Kings," a documentary about the famed George Foreman-Muhammad Ali fight in Africa, to his team before Game 3. And the Hawks have responded, taking the fight right to Boston and showing no respect to a team that seems to feel it is owed some based on its regular season. Despite terrific play from Joe Johnson and Josh Smith in Games 3 and 4, no two plays they made are more important than when Horford screamed at Paul Pierce and Zaza Pachulia, after absorbing an elbow from Kevin Garnett, got right into his face, showing no fear. The Hawks are just young enough to believe they can pull out the impossible. And that is making all the difference in Atlanta.
In Boston, the Hawks must clean up a few parts of their game to have a chance at taking the pivotal Game 5. They gave up 15 offensive rebounds because, as we anticipated, Boston made a better effort to get bodies on the glass. Kendrick Perkins, Leon Powe, Pierce, Garnett et al hung around the rim after shots were taken. The Hawks hung around with them instead of physically pushing them, relying on their supreme athleticism to grab boards. To Atlanta's credit, it blocked or contested many of these second chances, but in Boston it is likely that the Celtics players will go up stronger, putting their opponents at risk for fouls. Solomon Jones, rarely used thus far, had just one rebound and block in four minutes, but he made his presence felt and should see more time in Game 5.
Offensively, Atlanta realizes that breaking 90 points is the key to having a chance in Boston. And the Hawks should be emboldened by the realization that they scored 97 in Game 4 despite 17 turnovers (seven more than Boston) and 4-for-18 shooting from beyond the 3-point line. Almost a third of their points came from the free-throw line (29-for-33) and the Hawks got just over a third from the paint, using their ability to play above the rim and their length to score over the Celtic's well-positioned defenders. Boston forced those turnovers by playing tighter on the ball handlers, so Atlanta needs to use its pressure-release actions and move the ball. Standing and struggling to create space one-on-one is exactly what Boston's defense is trying to force the Hawks to do.
Boston tried to eliminate Horford's presence by asking Garnett to deny him paint touches, which he did extremely well. Horford went just 1-for-6 from the field and had four turnovers. Atlanta could run some high-low action to get Horford some easy dunks, but it has to space the weak side of the floor better, as Boston has help ready to cut off that action. Making that defender (on the weakside block) choose between helping or staying home but moving closer to a Hawks shooter stationed in the corner, would be a better set for Atlanta, as opposed to having its offensive player stationed on the wing just 15 feet from the basket.
The energized crowd in Atlanta helped the Hawks crawl back into the game after they were behind early (13 points) and then again at the end of the third quarter (10). Doing so, once or twice, will be much tougher in Boston, so coach Mike Woodson has to pick three or four of his best plays to immediately go to when facing a strong Boston run. Horford inside is one, Smith in open space is a second and anything involving Johnson ranks after those two options.
Atlanta won Game 4 mostly because of its fire and the heroics of Johnson. Boston had Ray Allen and Pierce try to defend him, but they couldn't. Johnson hurt the Celtics in space and on the post. On a late-game possession, Boston ran KG to Johnson for the double-team, but Johnson was able to draw a foul. Then the Celtics sent James Posey, but he was able to hit a short jumper. Will the Celtics send a second guy to him often in Game 5, making him give up the ball, or trust that their base defense at home will not allow him to go off like he did in Game 4? Johnson is an excellent passer, so the Hawks must be ready to hit shots or drive if Johnson passes. Boston's rotations are quick and timely. When the Celtics double, they need to contain Johnson by having each defender force him to the other.
The Celtics seem to be struggling to find an offensive identity in late-game situations. Pierce was incredible early, and looks to be their best matchup on offense overall. The Hawks again had Mike Bibby play "centerfield," running around trying to disrupt the Celtics' rhythm on offense, trusting that Rajon Rondo cannot hurt them as a scorer. Rondo had 14 points on 16 shots, and was a liability on many of their sets. Finishing against Atlanta's size and length has been tough for him. He had 12 assists in Game 4, but I expect in Game 5 he'll get his scoring on track if Bibby ignores him.
Game 4 taught Atlanta that getting punched hard early is not a knockout blow, so any quick start by Boston should not be met with fear and tightness. The Hawks have a newfound confidence that they can shock the world. Boston, for the first time all season, has some reason to doubt that it is a team good enough to win a title. Losing two straight games to a 37-win team will do that. But the Celtics' big three know that to win a championship, they must focus on one round at a time, nothing more. And to win the round, they have to focus on each possession, grinding it out slowly and surely, which is what they did in Games 1 and 2.
PREDICTION: Celtics win Game 5
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for ESPN.com and the executive director of the Pro Training Center at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for NBA and college players. To e-mail him, click here.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.
Scouts Inc. previews Game 5 of the Eastern Conference first-round series between the No. 8 Atlanta Hawks and the No. 1 Boston Celtics and picks the winner.