- David Thorpe, ESPN Staff Writer
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One improbable task down, one seemingly impossible task to go. Winning a Game 7 would be hard for such a young Atlanta team, even if it were played at home. Beating Boston on the road is something the Hawks have not come close to doing. None of the previous three playoff games in Boston has been competitive in the fourth quarter. That is the case because, incredibly, Boston has outscored Atlanta in all 12 quarters of play. So that becomes the best selling point coach Mike Woodson can make: Narrow the team's focus by challenging them to find a way to win a quarter or two of the first three, then trust and believe in themselves down the stretch. No strategy on the court matters a bit for the Hawks before they genuinely believe they can win.
Atlanta's road woes result from very poor offensive execution, for starters. It appears likely that Boston will again look to double Joe Johnson at every opportunity, limiting him to a distribution role. Doing so has its risks, as it leaves the weak side open and the brings up the potential for some inside looks as well. But to take advantage of those openings, Atlanta's players have to make the extra pass, which they did not do well in the three road games.
The Celtics will try to isolate Mike Bibby and Josh Smith, who shot a combined 16-for-64 (Bibby was 6-for-25, Smith 10-for-39) at Boston. Both guys settled for too many jump shots too early in the shot clock.
When Johnson makes the pressure release pass, oftentimes Bibby is the receiver. Boston will look to sprint and deny the swing pass to the weak side, hoping Bibby keeps the ball, forcing him to beat Rajon Rondo one-on-one. The advantage there goes to Rondo.
The Hawks must keep their weakside spacing and work either Marvin Williams (questionable with a knee sprain) or one of the Joshes (Childress or Smith) off some screens to get them open. Al Horford also has to be alert to step into the middle to help Joe Johnson, then hunt the ball down low after the ball gets reversed. The Hawks are at their best and hurt Boston the most when they are going to work in the paint converting shots and picking up fouls. It seems unlikely that they will earn 47 free-throw attempts in Game 7 like they did in Game 6, but the strategy of attacking with strength should stay intact.
Atlanta has not shot the ball well from the 3 in this series and was only 1-for-7 from behind the arc in Game 6. But taking so few shots became a positive trend for them. Woodson may implore his guys to take a similar approach, looking instead to use their athleticism and size to attack relentlessly. Shorter shots normally mean more rebounds around the rim, giving the taller, faster and longer Atlanta team more advantages. Look for the Hawks to create points by sending three guys to the offensive glass.
Horford has had a lot of success inside against the Celtics. He is bold enough to think he can outplay any Celtic big and is used to playing in big-time pressure games. His passing out of the paint is a major part of Atlanta's offensive success, but it can come only if Atlanta executes and delivers the ball inside.
Atlanta's defensive pressure has been poor in Boston. Though the crowd will be frenzied, Boston's players surely will feel pressured not to become one of the biggest upset victims in NBA history. Atlanta applying strong physical pressure on the ball combined with the inherent mental pressure could produce real problems for Boston's offense.
Atlanta should mix up its double-teams and try to keep Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett guessing about where and when the doubles are coming. Atlanta must choose whom to leave open wisely, as Ray Allen is capable of shooting the Celtics to a big lead. He plays with no fear. Rondo, on the other hand, looked very uncomfortable in Game 6. His 4-for-14 game could be matched in Game 7 if Atlanta forces him to be a finisher. He has slashed and scored better in Boston in this series, but Game 7 often tightens up playoff veterans -- but to a much lesser extent, newbies like Rondo.
The Hawks could put themselves in real danger if Rondo's drives create fouls for Atlanta's front line. Though they want to block every shot, using some discipline here will better enable them to log more minutes. "Block the shots you have a real chance at getting," will be Woodson's cry.
Overall, Boston's offense has looked fine. The Celtics get good shots on most of their possessions. They'll need Pierce and Allen to fight the urge to make plays themselves, as many scorers do in Game 7. Rondo has to control tempo, ensuring good shots from his teammates by running their sets instead of playing chaotically. If he fails to settle the team into a rhythm, Sam Cassell will head into the game. In Games 1 through 6, he may have been the strongest X factor. In Boston's three losses, Cassell is a combined 3-for-15 for a total of six points. But in their three wins he is averaging 11 points a game on 13-for-21 shooting for the series. Atlanta runs off Rondo to double or rotate and close off interior passing lanes, leaving him open to make shots or plays. Using the same strategy when Cassell is in the game has proved to be poor strategy in Boston. Atlanta must recognize if Sam is on his game and adjust accordingly.
Game 7 often features unlikely heroes amid incredible drama. Josh Childress played the hero in Game 6. So did Zaza Pachulia. Cassell and James Posey both have made monster shots in playoff crunch time. Who will step up and make the play to ice the game? Is Atlanta finding a way to win Game 7 any more improbable than winning three of six from Boston? Ultimately, I think so.
Pierce and Garnett, in particular, should have huge games, as Atlanta has no real answer for defending them. Allen appears ready for a 30-point outburst, especially if he gets help defending Johnson. It will be very hard for Atlanta to stay close. Road teams can get drilled in a Game 7, so the pressure is on Bibby to get his team into its sets every possession and control the tempo. Boston needs to not worry about throwing a knockout punch in the first quarter. Methodically working play after play and slowly building a lead has worked for them in their three wins. It should be good for one more.
PREDICTION: Celtics win Game 7
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 7 of the Eastern Conference first-round series between the No. 8 Atlanta Hawks and the No. 1 Boston Celtics and picks the winner.