HoopsHabit – “Breaking Down Aspects Of Chicago Bulls’ Stifling Defense Against Brooklyn Nets”

The gritty Chicago Bulls shocked a lot of people when they beat the Brooklyn Nets on the road in Game 7 while dealing with numerous injuries. Here’s my HoopsHabit piece on why Tom Thibodeau’s team was able to advance.

Celtics Outlast Hawks In Overtime

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.

Joe Johnson and Jeff Teague did everything they could to keep Atlanta in the game, but it wasn’t enough without Josh Smith.

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.

Ray Allen may be even more important now if Bradley misses significant time.

Pierce’s Performance and Another Key Injury

Rajon Rondo was suspended for a game. Ray Allen still wasn’t on the court. The Boston Celtics were looking at a 2-0 hole if they allowed the Atlanta Hawks to snag both home games to start the series. But thanks to an incredible performance from Paul Pierce (and a potentially series-altering knee injury for Josh Smith), Boston rallied from an 11-point deficit to tie the series at 1-1.

Despite being shorthanded, Bradon Bass’ struggles and Michael Pietrus putting up a goose egg as a starter, the Celtics got the much-needed road win to keep themselves in the series. Paul Pierce struggled with his shooting after scoring Boston’s first nine points, but had a dominant performance when his team needed him the most in the fourth quarter, finishing with 36 points, 14 rebounds and four assists to stun an Atlanta side that may be without their best player moving forward. Pierce’s performance was extremely impressive, as he lead his undermanned team to victory in a must-win situation, but without Josh Smith on the court, the Hawks had no chance. Jeff Teague had 18 points and Joe Johnson put up 22 points, but Atlanta’s lack of depth and Smith leaving the court with 4:20 remaining after spraining his left knee helped Paul Pierce’s incredible last quarter finish it off.

Pierce’s inspiring Game 2 performance even included Tebowing.

Pierce’s fourth quarter was extraordinary. Let’s not take anything away from him becoming one of three players in Celtics history to put up numbers like that. But what’s not getting enough play is the potential impact that Josh Smith’s injury might have on this series. He was scheduled for an MRI today and has patellar tendinitis, leaving him doubtful for Friday’s Game 3. But if he’s out for more than one game, the Celtics will waltz into the second round with no real challenge. Atlanta is already missing Zaza Pachulia down low, but when you’re talking about the Hawks’ best scorer, rebounder and shot-blocker, Smith’s injury could have a huge effect on the rest of this series. I already picked Boston to win this series pretty handily, but with Smith out, it will become a cakewalk. J-Smooth has already had a tremendous impact in the first two games of this series. After notching 22 points and 18 rebounds in Game 1, he put up a respectable 16-point, 12-rebound, 5-assist, 2-block performance in Game 2 despite missing the last four minutes. Smith’s presence in the paint has also limited Brandon Bass to just 8 points a game thus far, keeping Boston from overwhelming the Hawks with depth.

If Smith is out for an extended period of time, you can expect Brandon Bass and Kevin Garnett to flourish once again, especially now that Rondo will be back for Game 3 to distribute the ball and get his teammates better looks at the basket. Paul Pierce made up for his lackluster Game 1 performance and seems to be back on track When you combine that with Avery Bradley’s consistently improving play and the fact that Rajon Rondo will be coming back with a chip on his shoulder, Atlanta absolutely needs to find a way to win at least on game on the road in the TD Garden without their best player. Jeff Teague will need to continue scoring, Joe Johnson has to find a way to increase his offensive production even more and guys like Kirk Hinrich and Marvin Williams have to knock down their jumpers to keep Games 3 and 4 close. But if Josh Smith misses significant time, Atlanta might not win another game and go home empty-handed for yet another season.

If Josh Smith misses more than one game, this series is most likely over.

Rondo’s Temper

Rajon Rondo’s temper has caused problems for him and the Celtics in the past, but when he lost his composure in Boston’s playoff opener in Atlanta, he destroyed any chance his team had of winning the game and depending on how long he is suspended for, the whole series. With the Celts down by four late in the fourth quarter, Brandon Bass was whistled for a loose ball foul on Josh Smith. Rondo immediately yelled in the official’s face, earning him a technical foul. That was a big enough mistake considering how close the game was with just 41 seconds left. But then he made the situation even worse by continuing to yell at the official and ended up stepping toward him and bumping him in the back with his chest puffed out. At that point the official rightfully ejected him with a second technical.

The Hawks looked like they were going to pull out the Game 1 victory anyway, but Rondo might have just cost his team the series. Although Rondo claimed he didn’t intentionally bump into the ref, it’s pretty clear from the highlight that he lost control in his state of anger. The refs should be completely and absolutely untouchable. It’s understandable when players get upset with each other in a physical game, but when a player makes a move on an official, even if it’s a small bump like this, it opens up a scary realm of possibility for future players who lose control. In the heat of the moment, it’s hard for guys so competitive to calm down and think rationally, and after seeing what Rondo did, it’s hard to say that the idea hasn’t been planted that refs aren’t completely off-limits anymore. That’s not to say players will gun for officials now, but Rondo’s bump was a scary moment because it was an eye-opener as to what could happen if a player loses control and takes his anger out on the official. I think the bump will only earn him a one-game suspension and I think that punishment is adequate. It certainly doesn’t deserve punishment similar to Ron Artest after he brutally elbowed James Harden in the head. But whatever the punishment, Boston has now lost their floor leader and facilitator for a critical Game 2 in Atlanta. The Celtics are capable of winning without Rondo, but after they came out so sluggish yesterday, they could use all the help they can get.

Rajon Rondo made a costly mistake that could cost his team another game and maybe even the series.

It’s unfortunate Rondo can’t control his temper, because he had the best game of anyone on the Celtics, keeping them within striking distance despite a horrendous first half. Rondo finished with 20 points, 11 assists and 4 rebounds before his ejection. Kevin Garnett recovered from a poor first half and ended up with 20 points and 12 rebounds. Paul Pierce had an awful shooting night (5-for-19) and finished with just 12 points, and Brandon Bass wasn’t much better, going 3-for-7 for 8 points. To make matters worse, the Celtics got a total of four points from their bench, Ray Allen sat out and Avery Bradley contributed to Boston’s poor shooting night with a 4-for-12 performance.

And yet the Celtics were still somehow in the game at the end. From the Hawks’ perspective, this has to be somewhat troublesome going forward. Josh Smith played lights out, tacking on 22 points, 18 rebounds, 4 assists and 1 block. His performance covered for Joe Johnson, who only had 11 points on the night. Fortunately for Atlanta, Jeff Teague and Kirk Hinrich were able to score semi-effectively, tallying a combined 27 points. But unless that kind of contribution from their role players (and their bench, who outscored Boston’s bench 17-4), the Hawks could be in trouble in Boston when Rondo is back on the court and the shots start falling. Unfortunately for the Celts, the Hawks superior record gives them home-court advantage despite Boston having the higher seed. And now that Rondo will likely serve a one or two game suspension, a critical Game 2 in Atlanta almost becomes a must-win for the Celtics. No one can take anything away from what Rondo and the Celtics have accomplished this season after everyone said they were washed up and that they should trade Rondo. But after a costly blowup like this, fans have got to wonder about how much trust they can place in their gifted point guard when he can’t control his temper long enough to stay on the court.

The Hawks can take advantage of Rondo's absence, but they'll need to consistently help Josh Smith out on offense.

Eastern Conference Playoff Predictions

The 2012 NBA Playoffs kick off tomorrow morning so that means it’s time to break down the first round matchups. I gave my Western Conference playoff predictions earlier today, so now let’s take a look at the Eastern Conference. Here are my picks:

#1 Chicago Bulls vs. #8 Philadelphia 76ers – A few weeks ago, the Bulls were the best team in the league (even without Derrick Rose on the court) and looked like favorites to contend for the East. Now I’m not as confident. Because while Chicago has locked up the top spot and faces a paltry Sixers team, chemistry between their starters could be an issue. A myriad of injury problems for Derrick Rose, Richard Hamilton and Luol Deng has prevented this Bulls team from truly gelling over the course of the season and the last few game not enough time to do so for the postseason. Fortunately, they’re up against Philly in the first round, who can’t score to save their lives. Andre Iguodala was showing signs of life before slipping back into lower numbers, and Lou Williams and Elton Brand are too inconsistent. Then you throw in Evan Turner’s comments about matching up better with the Bulls and you’ve got a motivated Chicago team. The fact is, Philadelphia is not the same team that convincingly beat Chicago back on February 1. The Bulls have beaten the Sixers twice since then and the only thing that will stop them from sweeping this series is the chemistry issue.

Prediction: Chicago in 5 games

Can Derrick Rose stay healthy and get the Bulls to the second round? I say yes.

#2 Miami Heat vs. #7 New York Knicks – Believe it or not, this could shape up to be the best first round playoff series in the NBA this year. The Knicks will probably fall short and they might not even make it a competitive series, but with the way LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony have been playing this month, we’re going to be treated to at least one high-octane scoring battle between these two superstars. Without Jeremy Lin back and with Amare Stoudemire still trying to get fully acclimated, the Knicks don’t have a good shot of winning this series. Unless Melo goes absolutely bonkers and drops 45 a game, the talent of Miami’s big three will eventually overpower New York, but not without a scare or two. Madison Square Garden is a tough place to play when the Knicks are good and with Miami in town, you can bet those fans are going to make it as tough on the Heat as possible. The Knicks have a small advantage in their supporting cast (if only because Miami’s is so terrible), meaning that if J.R. Smith and Steve Novak can knock down some threes, this series could stay competitive. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are also dealing with minor injuries, so if those develop into anything serious, this series could get ugly pretty quick for Miami. Fortunately, LeBron James is finally embracing his role as the Heat’s alpha dog, so it’s tough to bet against Miami here.

Prediction: Miami in 6 games

Probably the marquee matchup of the first round: LeBron James vs. Carmelo Anthony.

#3 Indiana Pacers vs. #6 Orlando Magic – When you pair one of the hottest teams in the East up against the easiest first-round opponent in the playoffs, you get a pretty one-sided series. Orlando will really miss Dwight Howard not only in stopping Indiana’s penetration, but also in handling Roy Hibbert. The Pacers have won 12 of their last 15 and while Glen Davis has put up decent numbers as the man in the middle, the defensive impact of losing Howard will prevent them from giving this hot Indiana team any problems. The Magic might win a game at home because of the pride they have in playing together under Stan Van Gundy (especially after all that Howard has put them through this season), but the Pacers could potentially sweep here. Jameer Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu and Ryan Anderson really won’t be enough, especially now that Danny Granger is a true leader in Indiana. Then you throw in that Hibbert and David West are playing well, along with Paul George and George Hill stepping up their game. Finally, with Leandro Barbosa coming off the bench, Orlando doesn’t have a great chance of winning more than one game, and the game they do win would be out of pride and as a bi-product of the Pacers’ youth.

Prediction: Indiana in 4 games

Nobody gives Danny Granger and the Pacers love. Is it their time?

#4 Boston Celtics vs. #5 Atlanta Hawks – Every year we see Boston get a little bit older and we see a Hawks team that should be getting better, but really doesn’t improve much. Atlanta has been a force in the East for years now, but just can’t quite get over the hump to contender status. Meanwhile, the Celtics know what it takes to advance in the playoffs and are entering the postseason as one of the hottest teams in the East. They’ve been faced with adversity all year: at the beginning of the season, they were old and washed up; Rajon Rondo was reported as being a cancer in Boston’s locker room; there were talks of trading Rondo and possibly even breaking up the big three. But somehow the Celts defied expectations and rallied to reclaim the Atlantic division title and the four seed that went with it. Their confidence and team unity gives them a big edge over the Hawks, who are entirely dependent on Josh Smith and Joe Johnson. With Al Horford still sidelined, Atlanta will need Jeff Teague, Marvin Williams, Zaza Pachulia and Kirk Hinrich to consistently score. I don’t see that happening, especially considering Boston’s stifling interior defense. Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo usually perform well in the playoffs, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen will come to play and without home-court advantage, the Hawks don’t have much of a chance.

Prediction: Boston in 6 games

Paul Pierce and Josh Smith will put up big numbers, but the Celtics have a better all-around team along with home-court advantage.