There are many adjustments the Hawks can make, from a strategic point of view, to better compete in Game 2. But first, they need to make a mental one. Throughout the game, I noticed a sense of calm with the Hawks' players, when they only trailed by eight to 16 points in the second half. As if that amount of points is easily made up with more than 12 minutes left to play. And they're right, if they were playing any other team.
But the Celtics, and their terrific defense/ball control offense, make a 12-point margin seem like 20 because teams just can't string together a good enough run to get back into the game. And that false sense of security will guarantee doom for Atlanta unless it understands this rule: When the Hawks are down 10 or more points in the second half, they must make adjustments immediately or they will get blown out. They need to play, and make decisions from the bench, with more urgency.
In terms of on-court adjustments, the Hawks may start by asking Joe Johnson to be more disciplined on offense. Instead of shooting quickly in the half court when Paul Pierce goes under a ball screen 20 feet from the rim, Johnson can look to penetrate and kick. Quick shots in the half court, when three or four Celtics are in the paint focused on making any drive by Johnson difficult, will rarely result in an offensive rebound. And the one thing that really jumped out in Atlanta's favor during Game 1 was its clear athletic superiority. More ball movement means more sliding, hedging and recovering by Boston's defenders, making their challenge to box out Atlanta's athletic bigs and wings more difficult. Also, Kevin Garnett really locked in to being ready to help on Johnson, opening up offensive rebounding chances for Josh Smith, who grabbed two in his mere 24 minutes of action. He must engage better in this area.
Smith, who picked up his second foul late in the first quarter, sat the entire second. Again, with the Hawks thinking that the game was close, they didn't want to risk Smith picking up his third foul and perhaps fouling out of the game in crunch time. But there will be no crunch time if the Hawks' best player spends half the game on the bench. Smith ended the game with four fouls and just six points. Atlanta scored 81 total points, 17 below its average, with Smith scoring 11 points below his average. Better to play him with two, three or four and risk him fouling out than sit him and ensure the team will not have enough firepower to take down a team that won 66 games this season.
Rajon Rondo did a great job in hounding Mike Bibby, who shot horribly (2-for-10, 1-for-5 from 3-point range) despite getting good looks from the perimeter. The Hawks had some success when they set blind screens on Rondo, and it's a good idea to play more physically with the quickest guy on the floor. They do risk picking up offensive fouls, though, when they sneak up and stick him, but risk is the operative word when trying to upset the Celtics. If Bibby can get hot from deep, Atlanta's offense can jump up a notch and make Game 2 more competitive. Boston is special at closing out on hot shooters, so Bibby making shots means that Johnson can start getting more open looks as well if Bibby will make the extra pass. Those two guys shot a combined 3-for-11 from 3. They need a 6- or 7-for-11 performance to have a real shot at winning.
The Celtics had a sound overall defensive strategy, hounding Johnson with multiple defenders and giving him four or five defenders to deal with on penetrations or post-ups. They were not going to let him beat them. Their on-ball defense is superlative as well, making it difficult to beat them off the dribble without ball screens. So Atlanta's best hope in Game 2 might be to see what it can get from posting up Al Horford a lot more. He's no rookie anymore, and his 20 points (on 7-for-10 shooting) and 10 rebounds surely will catch the attention of the Celtics' front line. More touches inside could lead to more fouls by Garnett as well as forcing all the Celtics' defenders to double or help and recover more frequently -- which should be the Hawks' No. 1 priority. Getting those defenders away from the paint and scrambling on the perimeter would give the Hawks their best chance at driving open lanes and finishing plays at the rim. Too often they drove to the rim, only to get their shot blocked (seven times) or heavily contested by the ever-present Celtics big men. Scoring 100 points, which seems a must to get a win, will only happen if the Hawks can get easier shots inside, then hit open 3s.
Boston was solid on offense, as expected. The Celtics are a better-than-average team on that end, relying on their big three to get them good shots. They always want to have good spacing to have two guys to retreat to the defensive end to slow the Hawks' break, making them score in five-on-five situations. It's hard for the Hawks to focus on any one guy when they have three terrific players on the floor to defend, plus a phenom like Rondo racing all over the place. Rondo made some perimeter jumpers, a huge boost to his confidence for this, and the next series -- or three. And he finished with nine assists and zero turnovers, so Atlanta must find a way to disrupt him. The Hawks played him straight up and it looked like he was playing one on zero -- he's too quick for either Bibby or Childress. Ball screen blitzes, corner traps, hard doubles on ball penetration -- all are options for Atlanta to do something about Rondo wreaking havoc against them. Yes, there's risk involved with that strategy, but Atlanta has little choice -- it is severely outmanned in this matchup.
PREDICTION: Celtics win Game 2
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for ESPN.com and the executive director of the Pro Training Center at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for NBA and college players. To e-mail him, click here.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.