This is a fun one: Here’s my HoopsHabit article with the best current NBA player at every age.
Even though the first round of the 2012 NBA Playoffs isn’t over yet, second round action begins tonight with the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers! Here’s a quick look at the matchups to keep an eye on and my prediction for the series.
By virtue of a fortunate matchup with the injury-decimated Chicago Bulls, the Philadelphia 76ers have waltzed into the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals against a veteran Boston Celtics team. Boston, on the other hand, overcame a one-game suspension to their star point guard, Atlanta’s home court advantage, Al Horford’s inspiring return and some minor injuries to key players to advance past the Hawks in six games. Philadelphia is no Atlanta. As happy a moment as it was for Doug Collins and his team to win their first playoff series since 2003, the only reason they got out of the first round was that Derrick Rose didn’t play after Game 1, Joakim Noah didn’t play a few games and the Bulls completely collapsed in the final seconds of Game 6. And even then, they barely got by. If Chicago doesn’t fall apart in Philadelphia, the series would have gone back to Chicago in a near-impossible-to-win Game 7.
This is still the same Philadelphia 76ers team that can’t score. This is still the same Sixers team whose leading scorer comes off the bench. And even though the Sixers convincingly beat Boston two out of three times during the regular season, that stat isn’t as impressive as it sounds; the first win was at the beginning of March when the Celtics were just 20-18 and hadn’t started playing good basketball yet and the second was when Michael Pietrus’ scary moment snapped Boston’s concentration and directed their focus to the well-being of their teammate. Notice when the Celtics started playing like they have been for the last month, they blew the Sixers out.
Paul Pierce is incredibly difficult to stop at home and Ray Allen is back and shooting well. Then there’s Boston’s vast advantage in the post; Kevin Garnett is coming off a huge Game 6 and should have no problem outplaying Spencer Hawes, who was only effective in Philly’s first round series with Noah off the floor. And although Avery Bradley has been underwhelming on the offensive end still playing with a dislocated shoulder, his incredible perimeter defense should be perfectly capable in aiding Boston to shut down the recently productive Jrue Holiday and Lou Williams. So unless Philadelphia gets lucky again and the banged up Celtics face serious injury problems, Boston should have an even easier series and convincingly advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Sixers don’t have a truly elite scorer. In fact, they don’t even have a superstar (Andre Iguodala does not count as a star in my book. He’s definitely the heart and soul of this Philly team, but his numbers have been slipping each year since he entered the league). Boston has three players who can single-handedly take games over (Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett), a deadly sharpshooter off the bench (Ray Allen), and two developing young talents who are capable of outscoring anyone in Philly’s starting lineup on a given night (Avery Bradley and Brandon Bass). And as great of a coach as Doug Collins is, Doc Rivers deserved Coach of the Year considerations this year. You combine all of that with Boston’s experience and home court advantage and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a sweep here.
Prediction: Boston over Philadelphia in 5 games
The Boston Celtics advanced past the Atlanta Hawks at home after their Game 6 victory at home in front of a rocking TD Garden. Kevin Garnett came up big for the Celts, who squeaked out an 83-80 win and will now face the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round.
The man of the night for Boston in the decisive Game 6 was Kevin Garnett, who led the Celtics with 28 points and 14 rebounds. And despite playing with an MCL sprain, Paul Pierce also gave Boston a lift with 18 points while Rajon Rondo chipped in 14 points and eight assists. Josh Smith led Atlanta with 18 points and nine rebounds and Marvin Williams was also big, hitting four 3-pointers to finish with 16 points. In fact, everyone in the Hawks’ starting rotation did their part except for Jeff Teague, who finished with just five points on 2-of-9 shooting. Although, Horford missing a one of two free throws that would have tied the game with just over two seconds to play was also a big blow that finished off the Hawks. It was the only free throw Atlanta missed all night, but it turned out to be the most vital.
The key to the series was the Celtics’ depth and the Hawks inability to get a little bit more out of their two superstars. Boston had the luxury of alternating big nights between their three biggest stars (Rondo, Pierce and Garnett), while Atlanta never quite got enough out of Josh Smith and Joe Johnson. Smith and Johnson were certainly the Hawks’ most consistent players in the series, but they couldn’t sting together any truly great performances on the same night, so no surprise a team with depth and multiple contributors overwhelmed them in the end. Al Horford’s return in this series was definitely an added boost, but the Hawks still don’t have enough depth and production from their starting lineup to push Boston to a Game 7.
So now the Celtics advance to take on the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round, who advanced by the virtue of numerous Chicago injuries. This means Boston has a much easier path to the Eastern Conference Finals than they would have if Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah had been able to stay healthy. However, injuries are a part of the game, and they could become a factor in a Sixers playoff series again if Boston’s aging veterans keep getting banged up. Pierce has the MCL sprain, Ray Allen is playing with an ailing ankle and Avery Bradley is still playing with a dislocated shoulder. But as long as the Celtics’ key players are able to stay healthy and give 100 percent, Boston should have no problem closing this series out in five games.
Al Horford and a balanced offensive attack from Atlanta lifted the Hawks to an 87-86 Game 5 victory at home over the Celtics yesterday, forcing a Game 6 to be played in Boston on Thursday night.. The Hawks’ victory put the series at 3-2 and prolonged their playoff life for at least one more game.
After missing almost the entire season with a pectoral injury, Al Horford had a decent outing in his return in Game 4, but Boston blew the game wide open. But last night, on Atlanta’s home floor, Horford’s solid performance on both ends of the court was able to elevate his team to a narrow victory. Horford led the Hawks with 19 points and 11 rebounds, but he also provided the defensive play of the night for Atlanta by guarding Rajon Rondo in the game’s final seconds. Rondo felt Horford’s defensive pressure and lost control of a crossover, which prevented him from getting a shot off. But while Horford led the way, the rest of Atlanta’s starters weren’t far behind. An all-around balanced offensive effort from the Hawks was what made the difference in Game 5: Josh Smith had 13 points and 16 rebounds, Jeff Teague had 16 points, and Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams had 15 points each.
For Boston, Paul Pierce fell back into subpar shooting, finishing with 16 points. Kevin Garnett also had 16 and Brandon Bass added 14. Rajon Rondo only had 13 while Avery Bradley, who has been a consistent contributor in the second half of the Celtics’ season, only played 18 minutes through the dislocated shoulder and had just two points. Ray Allen continued to play well despite the ailing ankle and put up 15 points. But in the end, mediocre performances from the majority of Boston’s starters wasn’t enough in Atlanta to wrap the series up and give the Celts some much-needed rest should they advance to the second round.
Atlanta will need to find a way to duplicate this performance for Game 6 on the road. They’ll also be hoping that Paul Pierce doesn’t feed off the home crowd’s energy and go ballistic like he did in the Game 4 rout, because if he does, Atlanta will be going home empty-handed in the first round of the playoffs once again. The Hawks could also do with a little more production out of Joe Johnson and Josh Smith on the offensive end; 87 points might not be enough on the road against a Celtics team that is deadly in the TD Garden. From Boston’s perspective, all they really need to do is respond and take care of business at home with a focused and high-energy effort. If Pierce can have a decent shooting night, Rajon Rondo and Kevin Garnett will do what they do. And if Avery Bradley is healthy, the Celtics will benefit from having him and then Ray Allen coming off the bench, which would more than likely be too much for the Hawks. Even though they would have liked the chance to rest, Boston could afford losing Game 5 on the road. This veteran squad will realize they need to wrap things up at home to avoid a dangerous Game 7 back in Atlanta and should take care of business.
Celtics fans had been waiting for Paul Pierce to have a good shooting night in Boston’s series against the Atlanta Hawks. With his 10-of-13 shooting, 24-point performance, Pierce finally gave the fans what they wanted. Boston extended a 13 point first quarter lead to 23 by halftime and never looked back, grabbing a 3-1 series lead in their 101-79 Game 4 rout to spoil Josh Smith and Al Horford’s return.
I expressed concerns that Joe Johnson and Jeff Teague would only be able to keep up their high level of production without Josh Smith, but it turns out that even with him back on the floor they struggled to produce. Johnson finished with nine and Teague was even worse with just seven. Smith led Atlanta with 15 points and 13 rebounds while Horford had 12 off the bench. But the Hawks starters really didn’t play too much in the second half after Boston extended the lead to as many as 37 in the third quarter. We’ve seen this from the Atlanta Hawks in recent years: a gifted, athletic and talented team amasses a solid record in the regular season but doesn’t turn many heads, then falls flat on its face in the first or second round (usually with a few extremely underwhelming performances), which turns into a recurring cycle when they do the exact same thing the next year and no one is surprised. It’s tougher to criticize a team that played without a former All-Star for the majority of the season, but Atlanta should be competing better than this.
Despite the crowd loving every minute of Paul Pierce’s big first half, everyone in Boston held their breath when he went down with an apparent knee injury in the second quarter. Fortunately, he worked his way to the stationary bike and came back to play for a little while in the third quarter before he and other Celtics battling injuries were able to get some much-needed rest. In fact, no Celtic played more than 30 minutes other than Rajon Rondo and Brandon Bass. Because the aging Celtics played so well in the first half, they benefitted from a lot of rest time in a game that was pretty much over by halftime. Avery Bradley, who was playing through a dislocated shoulder, only played 19 minutes before sitting down. Ray Allen, who had 12 points in his second game back after missing almost a month with ankle problems, also played just 19 minutes before sitting down. It didn’t take long for the Hawks to recognize Game 4 was beyond their grasp and they rested their starters, but with Boston’s stars getting so much rest after packing such a wallop that fast, all the momentum heading into Game 5 in Atlanta lies with the Celts.
Boston is a dangerous playoff team despite their aging bodies and a myriad of minor injuries. If they can stay healthy, they should benefit from an easy path to the Eastern Conference finals now that it looks like Philadelphia will move on past the injury-plagued Chicago Bulls. It’s crucial for this team to finish the Hawks in Game 5 on the road and give themselves as much time to rest before the next round as possible. Atlanta needed to elevate their game to have any chance in this series, but with Josh Smith missing a game and tonight’s catastrophe of a game, the Hawks are as good as eliminated at this point. Horford looked decent in his return, but the first game back is always the easiest because adrenaline and excitement to be back on the floor takes over. To win this series, the Hawks would have to win three straight while dealing with the inevitable team chemistry issues that would arise from reinserting a former All-Star into a lineup that has become used to playing without him. With Ray Allen back and Rajon Rondo not giving referees any reason to eject him, the Celtics are an extremely tough playoff team, and that Hawks just don’t have the firepower this year to advance past the first round.
Joe Johnson and the Hawks hung around for as long as they could and even went on a late run to send the game to overtime without Josh Smith on the floor, but Rajon Rondo and the Celtics pulled out the win to take a 2-1 series lead. Although he didn’t score in the first half, Rondo had a triple double (17 points, 14 rebounds and 12 assists) in his first game back after serving a one-game suspension for bumping into referee Marc Davis in Game 1.
Johnson, Jeff Teague and even Tracy McGrady off the bench made up for Josh Smith’s absence with strong offensive performances, scoring 29, 23 and 12 respectively, but even a 15-4 spurt to send the game to overtime wasn’t enough to get a crucial Game 3 victory on the road. Unfortunately for Atlanta, no one else scored more than six and the Hawk’s three other starters (Kirk Hinrich, Marvin Williams and Jason Collins) put up a combined seven. Other than Rondo’s triple double, the Celtics were able to outlast Atlanta thanks to Ray Allen’s 13 points off the bench in his first game in almost a month and Kevin Garnett’s 20-point, 13-rebound night. And despite another up-and-down shooting night from Paul Pierce, he was still able to lead the Celts in scoring with 21.
The fact that Atlanta competed in Boston without one of their top scorers and rebounders (not to mention Zaza Pachulia and Al Horford, who’s been out all year) is a good sign for the Hawks, but if Smith isn’t 100 percent for Game 4, there has to be some concern about whether or not Johnson and Teague and can continue to put up offensive performances like that without any reinforcement from their supporting cast. Boston has concerns of their own, but their problems might be more long-term if Smith doesn’t look fully up to speed when he comes back from the knee injury. The first problem is Avery Bradley’s dislocated shoulder. He’s being listed as questionable for Game 4, but because they were unable to pop his shoulder back into place, it could be more serious. Bradley has developed into a quality starter for the Celtics with his lockdown defense and expanding ability to score. Another concern for Boston is Brandon Bass’ mediocre performance thus far. Bass has only put up eight points in all three playoff games, a significant drop in production considering the above-average regular season he’s had this year. If the Celtics advance to the next round, they’ll need Bradley to be healthy and Bass to contribute more to stay competitive.
Josh Smith expects to play in Game 4 for the Hawks, which is a pivotal game for Atlanta to stay alive in the series. They will need Pierce to struggle with his shot again and they have to hope Smith is 100 percent, but Atlanta can win if Johnson and Teague play as well as they have been so far. Boston will be tough to beat at home, especially now they Ray Allen has returned to add more playoff experience and leadership to this veteran team. But if Boston somehow drops Game 4 at home, the Hawks will have life again.