Celtics-Hawks Recap: Overreact Much?

1190922388You can look at the Celtics needing seven games to beat the Hawks in one of two ways. You can invoke words like “collapse” and “choke” while worrying that if Joe Johnson can do that to the once-vaunted defense, imagine what LeBron James will do. Or, you can take a closer look and make the very sane judgment that the Celtics and Hawks played a tremendously quirky series whose 7-game outcome made almost no sense statistically, and any attempt to draw black and white conclusions from it will likely lead to sweeping overheated generalizations.

How about we take a closer look.

Going into the seventh game, the Celtics were 50 points better than Atlanta, which is a point differential of 8.2 points per game. A gap that wide indicates a likely sweep, or at worst, a 4-1 series win.

Here are the other differentials, per game, from the Eastern Conference first round.
Cleveland: +3.3 (won series 4-2)
Orlando: +4.2 (won series, 4-1).
Detroit: +5.1 (won series, 4-2)

To put it another way, perhaps if the Celtics had reacted to Johnson’s one-man show in the fourth quarter of Game 4 better, we wouldn’t have had such angst.

Throughout the series, the Celtics were better at every phase of the game—with one dramatic exception. The Celtics shot the ball better, rebounded better, averaged six more assists and five less turnovers per game, and had almost twice as many steals heading into Game 7.

The one exception was free throw shooting. Through the first six games, the Hawks shot 71 more free throws than Boston and had a +60 differential in made free throws. Whether the Hawks deserved such largess is for greater minds to debate, but those numbers are staggering. Ten extra points a night can make up for a lot of other deficiencies.

There was something else happening here, as well. Much of the focus was on the Celtics perceived woes on the road, but the real home-road difference was with the Hawks. With the exceptions of Al Horford and Josh Childress, each Atlanta player was demonstrably better at home (or worse on the road, take your pick) with the most obvious example being Josh Smith (22 points per game at home vs. 12.3 in Boston).

Atlanta made twice as many 3-pointers at home, and turned the ball over three times a game less at Phillips Arena. By every meaningful measure, Atlanta was a completely different team at home. That the Hawks didn’t play that well, or that hard, during the regular season suggests different kinds of issues than physical talent.

There’s another reason not to read too much into the Atlanta series and that is Cleveland will be a much different matchup. With the obvious exception of LeBron, the Cavs do not possess the same kind of young, athletic talent that Atlanta had. The Cavs are, however, far better shooters, much better defensive rebounders, and have an actual, functioning bench. Plus, the Celtics were reluctant to run at times against the Hawks. There will be no such restraint against Cleveland.

There are, to be sure, issues that resulted from the Atlanta series that the Celtics need to address, to wit: Will Doc Rivers trust Rajon Rondo, or will he keep calling on Sam Cassell if things get rough in the fourth quarter?

However they got here, the Celtics are in the conference semifinals and they have the home-court advantage. Or, maybe you’d rather be Orlando?