In the locker room before Game 3, Boston coach Doc Rivers warned his players "to be ready for anything." He was suggesting the Hawks could pull out any number of tricks in an effort to win their first playoff game at home in a decade. Atlanta did inflate its effort, intensity and focus, but the Celtics didn't look prepared. Huge question marks now exist regarding the Celtics, who know they are heading back to Boston for a Game 5. They weren't expecting that. And that's the problem.
We have to look only at the Detroit Pistons to be reminded how meaningless regular-season dominance is if it's not matched with passion and purpose in the playoffs. And as stated here before Game 2, the Hawks have a huge edge in energy and athleticism. Before any X-and-O adjustments are made in the Boston coaching meetings, the team first must get this message to the players in plain terms. Highlights (or perhaps lowlights) of last season's Golden State Warriors-Dallas Mavericks series might get edited into Boston's film study.
Atlanta made some philosophical shifts in Game 3, asking Mike Bibby to make the extra pass and think about his shot as almost the last resort. It was wise, considering his poor shooting lately, and it worked, giving him eight assists to two turnovers -- just what the Hawks needed. The steady play from their veteran point guard helped to calm the entire offensive attack. Atlanta had just 11 turnovers, 10 fewer than in Game 2. The whole team followed Bibby's lead, making easy passes and taking better shots. The Hawks shot well not only because they made more assists (28, after just 10 in Game 2), but also because they made better decisions with the ball. Getting ball reversal after side pick-and-rolls opened up the entire floor for Atlanta's shooters and drivers. To counter this in Game 4, Boston might decide to blitz these attacks more often, trying to keep the ball on one side of the floor.
But it was Bibby's defense that caught my eye. It was the best I've seen from him in three seasons. He worked to give Rajon Rondo room to entice a jumper instead of letting him drive to the rim -- no easy task -- and he scrambled on defense all game. But most importantly, when he left Rondo, he stayed focus. This was a smart team defensive strategy and one to which Boston must adjust in Game 4. Atlanta often employed what looked like a matchup zone, working to keep its shot-blockers near the rim and not worrying about mismatches, like when Bibby had to defend Paul Pierce or Kevin Garnett on the perimeter. It served to keep Boston from finding an offensive rhythm, and that lack of rhythm energized the Hawks as they scored on runouts, often spectacularly.
Boston must read Atlanta's defense better and more quickly to take advantage of this type of zone and Atlanta's pure "switch on the screen" man-to-man looks. Playing off KG or Pierce in the pinch post when they have mismatches will allow the Celtics to seal off the weak side of the defense and send cutters through it, with either player able to deliver passes over and around the smaller defenders. And if Boston floods the glass with three or four guys, it can rack up offensive rebounds (the Celtics grabbed nine of 40 missed shots in Game 3). Of course, the risk there is it will allow Atlanta to get its transition game up to another level.
Boston also needs to respect Al Horford more than it has. He sometimes has gone unchecked in the paint when Boston has "zoned up" underneath on perimeter ball screens. Both Kendrick Perkins and KG have made that mistake, resulting in a dunk or foul. Finding Horford should be the No. 1 priority in those situations -- his hands are too good and he's too accomplished a finisher to be left unaccounted for inside.
Horford was a larger part of the offense in Game 3 (only about three months late), routinely posting up and making easy kick-out passes when Boston did surround him, or hitting cutters for easy buckets. His six assists added up to 15 points, and his teammates moved smartly after the entry pass instead of standing and watching.
In many ways, Horford already is the best leader on this team. He is its spirit and has a lot of influence on Josh Smith, Atlanta's supreme X factor. Late in Game 3, when Smith seemed to relax and enjoy Atlanta's lead, it was Horford who grabbed Smith's head with both hands and talked with him for a few moments. Smith immediately stopped smiling and plugged back in to the Hawks' huddle. If Boston can do a better job of derailing Horford, it will go a long way toward locking up Round 1.
But Boston also must channel some energy toward Smith, who carried the Hawks with his outside shooting, thunder dunks and everything in between. He still is learning the game, and the Celtics do want him to keep taking outside shots so he's not killing them on drives or on the offensive glass. Channeling engergy toward Smith will be very important if Smith starts out cold from the perimeter and then adjusts back to his slashing game, as opposed to continuing to take deep shots.
Offensively, Boston got KG involved early in Game 3, and Atlanta mixed up its double-looks for him, often arriving too late. Horford in particular made this mistake a few times. Mixing who and where the double comes from is good, but it must be executed correctly.
Ray Allen had a tough time getting easy looks, so some single-doubles or back screening the zone in the first quarter of Game 4 could help him find his groove. His outside shooting can really hurt Atlanta's paint-focused defense.
Atlanta's scramble type of defense might make it tough for Allen to get going, though, putting pressure on Rondo to make plays. And that's Atlanta's intent.
Heading into the season, I didn't trust Rondo to lead this team to 50 wins or a championship. Clearly, I was wrong about the first part, but although he has grown on me (and the league) a great deal, the second part still is very much up in the air. He basically was a nonfactor in his first road playoff appearance -- not a good sign when there are far better teams ahead for Boston. But I think he will harass Bibby and get the Celtics' defense back in control. Atlanta could win if it shoots the lights out again, but that seems very unlikely given its shooting history and Boston's character, provided the Celtics follows KG's lead and come out ready for a fight, because that's what they are going to get.
PREDICTION: Celtics win Game 4
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.