The Hawks and Celtics are locked into a first-round matchup now, and the Celtics essentially conceded home-court advantage in that series by resting their four best players in a loss to the Hawks on Friday. But fate turned back Boston’s way a bit on Monday, when Al Horford told Yahoo! Sports that he is likely to miss the playoffs entirely while still recovering from the pectoral tear he suffered early in the season.
On the one hand, it’s easy to dismiss the importance of Horford’s loss in this specific scenario. The Hawks are surging in his absence, 18-11 in their last 29 games, and it was unclear exactly what sort of production Horford might have been able to give them against Boston. Atlanta’s offense, its weaker half all season without Horford’s shooting and passing, has jump-started itself over the last 15 games or so, scoring at a rate that would lead the league over the full season. They’ve had success shifting Joe Johnson to small forward alongside the Jeff Teague/Kirk Hinrich backcourt, bringing Marvin Williams off the bench and generally using all the versatility they have left on the roster absent Horford.
But as I noted on Friday, there is one big cloud hovering over that nice story of internal improvement: Atlanta just cannot score against good defenses, and that has not changed in this scoring streak. Atlanta for the season has averaged about 94.1 points per 100 possessions against the league’s dozen best defenses and nearly 107 points per 100 possessions against everyone else, a giant gap that is nearly equal to the difference between the league’s third-best offense and the Bobcats. Their struggles against top defenses have continued even during the last few weeks, and solid weekend performances against a Boston team missing its four stars and a New York team sitting Tyson Chandler don’t exactly qualify as trend-changers.
Boston, you might have heard, has a pretty darn good defense, and it has been especially stingy since slotting Avery Bradley into the starting lineup. The Hawks are a very good team, and even without Horford, they should be able to make life difficult for Boston. Atlanta defends well (sixth in points allowed per possession), takes care of the ball, cleans the defensive glass and doesn’t give away many free throws. It is capable of slowing the pace and keeping games close, even against better teams, down into the waning minutes. And Boston’s offense, just 24th in points per possession for the season, is not exactly the sort of scoring machine that generates a lot of blowouts. (In fairness, Boston’s offense is also surging, and its new starting lineup has scored about 109 points per possession in 216 minutes this season — a mark that would lead the league. But the sample size is small, and the jury is out on its long-term prognosis.)
In short, the goal here is for Atlanta to beat at least one good team four times in seven tries, and without Horford, it’s unclear if they can manage enough scoring to do that against perhaps the league’s best defense. Even a limited version of Horford would have loosened things up for Atlanta’s offense with his passing and jump-shooting, and he could have played center against Boston without suffering the usual size/bulk disadvantage, since Boston is playing Kevin Garnett heavy minutes there.
This might be trivial, but the loss of Horford robs Atlanta of an additional bit of versatility: they can no longer go super-big, with Josh Smith at small forward alongside Horford and whichever center Larry Drew prefers on a given day. The Hawks may not have gone that route at all against Boston, anyway. The Celtics’ new lineup is quick and rangy at the big positions, and the Hawks have used the super-big strategy sparingly, against particular matchups (i.e., the Magic and Dwight Howard).
But any lineup that slides Johnson back to shooting guard presents an interesting problem for Boston. At small forward in Atlanta’s current starting group, Johnson matches up naturally with Paul Pierce. Slide him one position over, and he is at least nominally the responsibility of Bradley or Ray Allen — smaller players Johnson could eat alive in the post. Atlanta might still be able to accomplish this by using Williams, Tracy McGrady or even Vladimir Radmanovic as “small forwards,” and McGrady in particular has made a habit this season of posting up small players on the wing. Still, Boston might counter by hiding Bradley or Allen on these other wing players, something they would not able to do against the Hawks with Horford around and Smith at small forward.
Again, this analysis has probably gone a bit far afield. Atlanta has been more likely of late to go smaller rather than bigger, and Horford hasn’t played any NBA ball since January. This is especially true given Zaza Pachulia’s recent foot injuries. But Horford is a very valuable offensive player, and losing him means the Hawks will have to continue getting by with Pachulia, Jason Collins and Ivan Johnson alongside Smith. Atlanta has the skill and versatility to remain competitive, but it lacks the pop without Horford to threaten the Eastern Conference’s very best teams — provided those teams are healthy (Chicago) and mentally on-the-ball (Miami).