One of the best regular-season teams from the East that we've seen in years against a team that has broken the longest active playoff drought in the NBA. Rarely has a team been so bad one year and so good the next -- in fact, no team has ever turned around this much this quickly. So the Boston Celtics, too, will feature players who have not tasted the playoffs for a few years.
It is difficult to imagine Boston struggling with anything the Atlanta Hawks might throw at it. Given that the teams play at almost exactly the same pace (89.5 offensive and defensive possessions per game for Boston, 89.8 for Atlanta), anything the Hawks do to speed up or slow down the game to affect the Celtics might also have a negative impact on themselves. Atlanta lacks the depth to outrun Boston, and lacks the defense to beat the C's in a slow game.
But try to beat them the Hawks will -- by featuring Joe Johnson from everywhere and hoping that guys such as Mike Bibby and Josh Childress get hot from the perimeter. Boston will focus on making it tough on Johnson and will trust that Rajon Rondo's quickness and length will factor into Atlanta's shooting.
The Kendrick Perkins vs. Al Horford pairing is intriguing to Atlanta if only because no other matchup is. But the Hawks rarely have used their young center as a go-to player, so predicting that will start now is risky. Boston is so suffocating in guarding the other team's best stuff that Atlanta might be forced to come up with something totally different.
Conventional wisdom suggests that, as the biggest playoff "David" of perhaps the past few years, the Hawks will play relaxed and well. But that sounds good only until Atlanta scores just 8 points in a quarter or trails a game by 30-plus points -- both possibilities in Boston. Then, athletes get tight and scared because no competitor likes to be embarrassed. And with Kevin Garnett rallying the troops on this devastating defense, the Hawks will feel as though they are trying to score on six guys, so good and sharp are these Celtics on closeouts and rotations.
He'll be excited to be back in the playoffs, where he's had some special moments. But he's not going to love being hounded by Rondo all game. Bibby will use his strength to make plays at the rim, and Boston's bigs will meet him there to make things difficult. Rondo should have no problems getting past Bibby and creating 5-on-4 situations. For Atlanta to stay close in a game or two and make things interesting, Bibby probably has to get hot from 3-point range.
Will be feeling the pressure of playing well in his first playoffs because his veteran teammates know how important he is to their overall success. He's a demon on defense, both in creating chaos and in making it tough on his man to score. And he gets anywhere he wants on the floor thanks to his extreme quickness. Still, what he does in the pick-and-roll game when his defender goes under the screen will help determine how successful the Celtics will be on offense.
Johnson: The Hawks' best offensive player, and the guy Boston tries to strangle when these teams face off. He averaged just 15 points per game on 31.3 percent shooting and made just 3-of-16 3-pointers in their three meetings. He's big enough to back guys down, something he should look to do if his shot is not falling. He's an underrated playmaker when he sets his mind to it, and could get good shots for teammates with all the attention he'll get from the teeth of the Celtics' defense.
Had by far his worst season statistically of the past seven years, but he actually played beautifully within the Celtics' team concept. Still a "money" shooter with the game on the line, and he shot well in his three games against the Hawks (60 percent on field goals, 50 percent from 3-point range). He'll have his hands full defending Johnson, who will drive, post, run through screens and back-door Allen all series. But Allen is a better defender than you might think.
Enjoyed the best season of his career but is not close to being the elite player the Hawks expected him to grow into. Yet. This series would be a great platform for Williams to take that next step. Using his size and skills to attack Pierce both outside running off screens and by backing him down a bit in the post could have an effect on the Celtics' best offensive player. And we'd see whether Williams has the stuff to be a go-to guy when it matters.
Another scoring machine who bought into the team concept successfully. Became a very efficient scorer (true shooting percentage: 59.9) and an improved defender, plus was a very willing passer as he learned to trust his teammates. He'll match up with all the wing players from Atlanta, which proved to be no problem in their regular-season games. Could be a little overanxious at the start, but has enough firepower around him to ultimately take the pressure off himself (in Round 1, anyway).
Maybe Atlanta's best X factor. Has struggled (like his teammates) to play efficiently in his three meetings with Boston. If KG is busy roaming the paint to offer help on Johnson, Smith must make him pay by going hard to the glass. Unfortunately, despite the conventional wisdom, Smith was one of the weakest offensive rebounders for his position this season. But he is a real threat as a shot-blocker and will try to establish a presence inside, hoping to make Boston take more perimeter jumpers.
Works with Rondo to establish the Celtics' mighty defensive presence. Excellent defending in both tight and open spaces. Mr. Intensity certainly will work to avoid any letdown (caused by overconfidence) by his teammates, and he's likely to produce at least one 20-20 game to set the tone for the entire playoffs. Matches up well with uberathlete Smith, and scored easily against the Hawks (23.7 points per game on 62.5 percent shooting) this season.
It seems likely that coach Mike Woodson knows that his best matchup in the starting five features Horford. But it is less likely that this will mean anything in the postseason. Horford was, by far, the Hawks' most successful player against the Celtics' defense this season, scoring 15.7 points per game on 55 percent shooting. And he got to the free-throw line more than five times per game -- doubling his numbers against the rest of the league. He was also a beast on the offensive glass and should be again as Boston focuses more on closing out on Atlanta's perimeter players. Remember Tayshaun Prince's incredible run in the playoffs as a rookie? If Atlanta recalls it too, Horford has a chance to make the same kind of impact.
The only matchup liability for Boston in this series, though he has the ability to make excellent contributions. Struggled with fouls against Atlanta in the team's last two games, so that is something to watch: Can he stay out of foul trouble? He's an excellent finisher around the basket but not a great rebounder, and he's playing against a future All-Star in Horford, who's a beast on the glass.
One of Atlanta's best chances to stay competitive is to have its bench dramatically outplay Boston's, which is possible only if Childress shows off his underrated talents. He can score, defend and rebound, and he is the best reserve from either squad.
Salim Stoudamire: Atlanta's version of House, Stoudamire might be used for his decent 3-point shooting when the Hawks fall behind.
Really tumbled after being demoted behind Horford. He's a decent rebounder at best, and he has struggled with the ball and is a huge turnover risk.
Underrated rebounder and scorer. Proved he can deliver in April by averaging 13.7 points on 57.7 percent shooting when he got extended minutes. Boston's best bench guy.
Still an unknown as far as how he'll fit into this team the next two months, considering the "win or go home" pressure of the playoffs. But he's the master of the midrange jumper, which he gets off his excellent shot fake-freeze, fake-change-of-speed game -- a strong weapon when the defense tightens around him.
Solid on defense but undependable on offense. Might be asked to help slow Johnson if the Hawks' scorer gets it going, but it's a tough matchup for Allen.
Will struggle to stay in front of Smith on the perimeter, but Davis is an active help defender with a good feel for spots and rotations. And he can hurt Atlanta inside if the Hawks don't play with toughness.
A strained abductor muscle could limit his effectiveness. But he has torched the Hawks this season in two games, averaging 12 points per game on 45.5 percent shooting from 3-point range. He and Cassell ensure point production off the bench.
David Thorpe: I sense that the Hawks will play decently in Games 1 and 3 and might even stay competitive in some games through three quarters. But ultimately, Atlanta is so outmatched at almost every position, and Boston is playing with such passion and purpose.
Prediction: Boston 4, Atlanta 0
Boston has been a machine all season, rarely missing a step in any half, much less a whole game. I see no reason the Celtics would take their eyes off the task at hand -- too many veterans involved for that to happen.
Prediction: Boston 4, Atlanta 0
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.
Mike Moreau is the Director of Basketball for the Pro Training Center and The Basketball Academy at the IMG Academies in Bradenton, FL. He also serves an NBA Analyst for Hoopsworld.
Synergy Sports Technology systems were used in the preparation of this report.