As the Boston Celtics prepare to open the 2012 NBA playoffs on Sunday at Atlanta against the Hawks, here's a quick scouting report on the two teams:
CELTICS -- Kevin Garnett: Moving Garnett to center (more out of pure necessity than anything else) was one of head coach Doc Rivers' finest moves this season, and Garnett, despite some longstanding hesitations at playing the position, has reaped the benefits. His versatility on the offensive end gives him a better advantage against other centers as opposed to power forwards, and he still stands as the backbone of Boston's stellar defense along the front line. His defensive rebounding numbers are on par with some of his finest seasons in Boston, and aside from a minor hip flexor problem, Garnett appears spry, rested and ready for another productive playoff run.
HAWKS -- Zaza Pachulia/Jason Collins: The Hawks were dealt a crushing blow when they learned Al Horford would not be returning for the first round of the postseason, leaving them with only Pachulia, Collins and Erick Dampier as their men in the middle, with Pachulia also questionable with a foot injury. While the Hawks will undoubtedly miss Horford's production on both sides of the ball, his fiery spirit was just as important to their playoff hopes. If Pachulia can't go, Collins will start in the middle for Atlanta, and the 10-year NBA journeyman will more than have his hands full with Garnett.
SIGNIFICANT EDGE: Celtics
CELTICS -- Brandon Bass: Bass proved to be a rock of consistency for Boston throughout the season, and his unwavering ability to stick to his defined role will prove to be a valuable asset for the Celtics in the playoffs, at a time when consistency becomes that much more crucial. While he shouldn't have much trouble continuing to thrive as a catch-and-shoot player from 12-15 feet, Bass can continue to step up his game in the rebounding department and on the defensive end. He'll be given a tough assignment in Josh Smith, but any lapses on defense can partly be forgiven by a devotion to crashing the glass.
HAWKS -- Josh Smith: While it might not be fair to label Smith as a wild card in this series, his ability to put up consistent numbers will go a long way toward determining the Hawks' fate in the first round. With Horford out, there will be more of an onus on Smith to pick up the slack on the glass and use his other-worldly athleticism to change the game defensively. While he's versatile on offense and has the ability to stretch the floor when needed, Smith is often best served when he plays closer to the basket (he's a career 28 percent 3-point shooter) and breaks out in transition, where he can allow his athleticism to take over.
SLIGHT EDGE: Hawks
CELTICS -- Paul Pierce: Despite coming into the lockout-shortened season out of shape, Pierce was still able to make the 66-game campaign one of his finest in recent memory, as he proved he's still more than capable of creating his own offense and adapting his game to whatever his team is in need of. The playoffs are always where Pierce shines the brightest, and while he might have struggled somewhat against the Hawks in the regular season (he made just 10 of 33 shots in two games), don't expect any offensive woes to carry over in the playoffs.
HAWKS -- Marvin Williams: While not a truly lethal scoring threat, Williams still has plenty of shot-making ability, but it'll be his defensive assignment on Pierce where he can potentially help the Hawks most in this series. Containing Pierce will be no small task, particularly when Pierce decides he wants to get to the basket and the free-throw line, but if Williams can, at the very least, make Pierce work for his points and bother his perimeter shot, he'll help give the Hawks a fighting chance in this one.
CELTICS -- Avery Bradley: Bradley's most significant contributions to the Celtics' playoff run will most likely come on the defensive end, but don't count out his production on the other side of the ball. For the month of April, Bradley averaged over 15 points per game and shot a whopping 63 percent from 3-point territory, and his ability to consistently knock down the corner 3-pointer could serve as a valuable weapon for Boston. It's always important for a playoff team to have a lockdown defender, and Bradley easily fills that role for Boston, particularly against opposing point guards and shooting guards.
HAWKS -- Joe Johnson: As adept as Bradley is on the defensive end, at just 6-foot-2 he'll certainly have his hands full with the 6-foot-7 Johnson, a six-time All-Star and the Hawks' leading scorer. Johnson's prowess on the offensive end can't be underestimated in this series, as he averaged 18.9 points per game during the regular season, shot 45.2 percent from the field and an impressive 39 percent from 3-point nation.
CELTICS -- Rajon Rondo: While it seems to be said with each passing year, the Celtics' 2012 postseason run will hinge on the play of Rondo. While there are plenty of necessary pieces within the Celtics' machine, Rondo is the one steering the machine toward victory each night, and the other pieces arguably function at their best when Rondo's calling the shots. Rondo led the NBA with six triple-doubles this season, and it's not out of the question to think he could match or even surpass that total in the playoffs.
HAWKS -- Jeff Teague: Teague has arguably the toughest assignment of all in this series: slowing down Rondo. File this one into the "Much easier said than done" category. Meanwhile, Teague is still developing on the other side of the ball, but he's proven to be a reliable floor leader for the Hawks over the past two seasons. Still, this is ultimately Rondo's matchup to lose.
CELTICS: Ray Allen is clearly the biggest question mark for Boston right now. If he can overcome his ankle woes and play, the Celtics will have a reliable sixth man at their disposal, as well as Allen's customary clutch shooting late in games. If he can't play, the C's are still outfitted at his position, with Mickael Pietrus the leading option, along with Sasha Pavlovic and even Keyon Dooling. Up front, Greg Stiemsma will continue to prove his worth behind Garnett at the center position, while Ryan Hollins could provide some energy-filled, momentum-inducing minutes.
HAWKS: Kirk Hinrich is Atlanta's most reliable guard off the bench, but Jannero Pargo is a guy who, if he gets minutes, can catch fire and score in bunches. An older yet still occasionally effective Tracy McGrady will be another option for the Hawks, while Vladimir Radmanovic provides some versatile size and outside shooting. Ivan Johnson is Atlanta's other key reserve up front, particularly with its injury-depleted middle.
CELTICS -- Doc Rivers: Rivers has believed in his team from Day One, and all of his faith will be tested in the postseason. Rivers has been with this core group for five seasons now, and they have the benefit of having been through the fire multiple times. Rivers has trust in his players, and vice versa, which will certainly help the Celtics persevere when they face adversity. Plus, Rivers remains arguably the best in the business when it comes time to draw up a play during a timeout.
HAWKS -- Larry Drew: It will only be Drew's second go-around in the postseason as a head coach, but he did manage to help guide the Hawks to the Eastern Conference semifinals last season, with largely the same roster at his disposal (granted, Horford was healthy). This will be another opportunity for Drew to show his coaching chops against one of the East's most accomplished teams in recent years, and against an excellent postseason coach in Rivers.