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Series Preview: Abundance of subplots marks Hawks-Celtics

Series could be determined by battle of All-Star point guards

POSTED: Apr 15, 2016 8:57 AM ET

By Shaun Powell

BY Shaun Powell

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Hawks vs. Celtics: By the Numbers

Go inside the numbers of the Hawks-Celtics first-round matchup.

Twenty-eight years ago, the Boston Celtics and Atlanta Hawks squared off in the Eastern Conference semifinals and the NBA was treated to a thrilling duels you'll ever see: Larry Bird vs. Dominique Wilkins. In Game 7, it was 47 points for 'Nique, 20 in the fourth quarter for Bird, and everyone left exhausted by it all.

Here we are in 2016, the same teams meet once again in the playoffs, and let's state the obvious: Atlanta and Boston this time don't have an ounce of the same star power.

Yes, the lack of a true superstar hoovers over these franchises like a lead basketball. It hurt the Hawks last season when they were rebuked in the Eastern Conference finals by LeBron James despite winning 60 games, and it dominates conversation about the Celtics, who have all the trimmings but missing the main dish. Teams built this way rarely go very deep into the postseason, and nobody is quick to put either Atlanta or Boston into the NBA Finals in June.

But here's what else they share in common: Both are well-coached, share the ball, and rarely lose games because of a lack of effort. Therefore, while we can't expect to see a pair of Hall of Famers exchanging baskets at both ends, there should be a different sort of drama and this series, like the other, can very well go the limit.

During the season, the Hawks held the upper hand, winning three out of four. The matchup, for whatever reason, favors the Hawks, who are on a mission to at least return to the conference finals despite winning 12 fewer regular season games. Yes, the Hawks don't carry the same swagger as they did in 2015, but most of the important players are still in uniform and healthy. Plus, they're far more experienced than the Celtics.

The Celtics do boast an exciting All-Star talent in Isaiah Thomas, and they have a band of very complimentary pieces that seem to work and enjoy sharing the load. You could make a case for the Celtics being one of the biggest surprises of the season. And Boston, a city spoiled by an abundance of stars in the franchise's storied history, has rallied around this group.

As 4 vs. 5 seeds go, this one is a close call, and the outcome wouldn't surprise anyone no matter which way it falls. Maybe we won't get Bird and Wilkins, because neither team has that level of individual brilliance. However, they can replace it with balance and maybe someone unexpected pulls a surprise.

The Hawks will win if ...

Jeff Teague takes the point guard matchup. That's a "tall" order against Isaiah Thomas, obviously. But while Thomas was an All-Star this season, Teague was one last season. The problem is, Teague has fallen off the map ever since, by struggling through the first three months of this season until he rediscovered his groove lately. When Teague plays well, it frees All-Stars Al Horford and Paul Millsap from constantly needing to create their own shots, and gives Kyle Korver more open looks from deep. In the last 10 games, Teague averaged 20.6 points and almost 6.5 assists and, more important, wore the look of confidence that was missing earlier.

Back on April 9 in a 118-107 win over Thomas and Boston, Teague scored 24 points with seven assists and five rebounds, compared to a game last December when he had six points and played only 20 minutes vs. the Celtics.

Yes, the Hawks do have Dennis Schroder as an emergency rip cord, but the Celtics have one of the quickest backcourts in the league and Atlanta needs help from all of their guards, not just Schroder. Atlanta brings one of the league's better defenses, which is necessary because the Hawks are soft rebounders and haven't hit 3-pointers at the rate they did last season. But getting smart point guard play will be almost as important.

The Celtics will win if ...

Their bigs comes up big. Boston has a committee of mainly undersized bigs who compensate by getting their elbows bruised. Amir Johnson, Jared Sullinger and Kelly Olynyk rarely have blockbuster games individually, but together they can wear down the enemy. Each brings something different: Johnson has a defensive presence and is the only shot-blocker on the team. Sullinger has the best low-post offense of the three, and Olynyk can stretch the floor at times. Their challenge is Horford, who can get hot from the elbow, and Millsap, who can score off the dribble and also from mid-range.

But the Hawks lack a true center who can give Boston fits on either end of the floor, and the Celtics would be wise to exploit that. The Johnson-Sullinger-Olynyk crew has another reason for motivation: It's largely believed the Celtics will look to shore up that area, more than any other, this off-season. Well, this should serve as an audition of sorts for their bigs, to show what they're made of and whether they're worth keeping around. If two of the three are chopping up the Hawks, this will be a very long series for Atlanta, and a potentially quick one for Boston.

3 quick questions and answers

1. Is Marcus Smart the real deal, or a bust?

Everyone can plainly see his toughness, yet his skills leave a lot to be desired. Danny Ainge loves him, but Smart remains very inconsistent here in his second season and a terrible shooter (35 percent overall, 25 percent on 3-pointers). The playoffs could reveal whether he is, or isn't.

2. Will Mike Budenholzer give Tim Hardaway Jr. important minutes?

He was an afterthought for much of the season until mid-March, when he delivered back-to-back 20-point games and became a revelation. Much will depend on how well Kyle Korver plays, and even if Korver struggles, Budenholzer might give the veteran the benefit of the doubts. But at least there's another option.

3. Why are Evan Turner and Kent Bazemore worth watching?

Because both are playing for money this summer. Turner is a former No. 2 overall pick who's no longer a complete bust, and thrives in Brad Stevens' system by bringing a multiple skill-set. Bazemore has upped his offensive game, especially with the three-pointer from the corner, and has never had a big payday.

Making the pick

How can you not love Isaiah Thomas? He was the final pick of his draft class and given up by two teams, Sacramento and Phoenix, although he was solid in both cities. He'll be fun to watch. But the Celtics will need more, and we're not quite sure if Avery Bradley or anyone else is up to the task to bring it every night on the big stage. And so: Hawks in 7.

Data curated by PointAfter

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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