Brad Stevens, genius of the whiteboard, has openly admitted to coaching plagiarism. So it was fitting on several levels that his tireless Boston team opened Game 4 of the first round's most exciting series with a play ripped right from the Kyle Korver chapter of Mike Budenholzer's playbook:
With Avery Bradley out and Kelly Olynyk limited, the Celtics face borderline fatal spacing strangulation whenever Isaiah Thomas has the ball. Starting in the second half of Game 2, and especially in Game 3, Stevens loosened things by having Thomas spend more time scampering around without the ball as a mini-shooting guard. That has included a lot of "split"-style actions like this, where Thomas and a teammate come together, dance around each other, and burst apart in unpredictable patterns.
Except this was one predictable, and almost certainly scripted. Boston knew Jeff Teague, overmatched so far guarding Thomas, might try to block Thomas's path toward any potential screener -- effectively playing on top of him. Thomas read that, veered away from Crowder, and set a surprise screen on Crowder's man, Kyle Korver, offering himself up as the meat in a Hawks sandwich as Crowder sprung open.
Korver probably felt like Jerry Seinfeld when Puddy ripped off part of his routine: "THAT'S MY MOVE!" Here is Korver pulling the trick to free Paul Millsap during a regular-season game against Boston:
Poor Kemba Walker and Frank Kaminsky had no clue what was about to hit them:
The best shooters make the best screeners. If Stephen Curry sets a pick that untangles Klay Thompson, Curry's defender isn't going to slide away from Curry to patrol Thompson until Thompson's defender wriggles around Curry's screen. Defenders are petrified to leave guys like Curry or Korver open for even a split second. Thomas isn't near their level as a shooter, but he's the best facsimile Boston has, and Stevens is leveraging the threat of Thomas's shooting for all it's worth.
The Hawks could switch this action, but that requires pitch-perfect communication, and if they do that once, Thomas will just make a different read the next time around.
And that's the first of our Eight Things to Watch as the Hawks, after four mostly tight games, seek to regain control tonight in Atlanta:
2. Can Teague handle Thomas away from the ball?
So far, he hasn't been up to it. Teague might survive the first cut, and maybe the second, but if Thomas worms his way around the floor for 10 or 15 seconds, Teague is breaking down at some point -- smashing into a pick, taking an odd route around one, or exhaling, flat-footed, when Thomas completes one Ray Allen-style route.
Thomas away from the ball has a sort of Kyle Lowry-like quality to him: He never stands straight up, sapping his own momentum, and he's always primed to keep moving. When he sees his defender take a break, he's gone.
Atlanta doesn't really have a lot of great choices. Kent Bazemore isn't fast enough, and slotting him there would require Teague guard Evan Turner -- a post threat against little guys -- or some other dramatic reshuffling of defense assignments. The Hawks tried Thabo Sefolosha on Thomas during a few crunch-time possessions, but Sefolosha doesn't start, and can't keep up with Thomas, anyway.
Dennis Schroder has been better, and during the seven minutes he and Teague have shared the floor, Budenholzer has given him Thomas duty. Budenholzer has rarely trusted that double point guard look. Teague probably just has to be better.
The Hawks know Teague is having trouble, and so they are starting to overplay passing lanes as Thomas comes flying off screens. Boston in turn has noticed the Hawks jumping those passes, and has started to prey upon that aggression with pass fakes and well-timed drives:
With more preparation, Boston might be able to get some easy buckets out of this.
3. Can Teague and Schroder find that ISO-tastic balance?
By starting Turner over Marcus Smart, the Celtics have (mostly) accepted the cost of having Thomas defend Atlanta's point guards -- something they avoided in the first two games, when Thomas hid out on Bazemore.
Both Teague and Schroder can beat Thomas off the dribble by themselves, without the aid of a screen, whenever they'd like. That kind of one-on-one play cuts against Atlanta's pass-happy identity, but it can be devastating, especially when they attack in semi-transition -- with Thomas backpedaling, and the other Boston defenders still setting their feet.
The key for both guys is finding the right balance between probing with multiple options on the table, and rushing headlong into wild drives for their own shots. The Hawks are deadly when Teague changes pace, keeps Thomas on his hip, and chooses between an in-close floater or a drop-off pass to a big man around the rim. When Teague is rolling, he'll fake the shot, get a help defender to bite, and slip a short-distance pass to Horford -- who can either dunk or dish it back outside to an open shooter.
When Teague and Schroder put their heads down and just go, they can get out of control, cough up turnovers, or fly out of bounds as their layups bonk off the rim. Boston gets fast-break points out of that, and the Celtics need those chaos points to survive.
4. Can Boston score without Thomas? Can Atlanta make that matter?
Boston's offense has collapsed without Thomas; the Celtics just don't have enough shooters or anyone who can create workable looks. Thomas sat for just 10 minutes in Game 4, and the Hawks outscored Boston by 12 points in that short span.
The Hawks haven't been able to win those non-Isaiah minutes consistently, because their own bench has been a disaster. Boston is just minus-2 overall in the 50 minutes Thomas has sat, per NBA.com. Stevens would sign up for that right now. Schroder and Sefolosha are missing wide-open shots the Celtics are happily giving them. Mike Scott started hot, but he's been a disaster defensively, abandoning Jonas Jerebko for no reason several times in Game 4. Tim Hardaway Jr. and Kris Humphries -- the rare Hawk who can actually snag an offensive rebound -- apparently died at some point over the last week.
Atlanta's starters are plus-22 for the series. All other lineups combined are minus-21, and none of them have even logged more than 10 total minutes over four games. Budenholzer is trying everything, and nothing is working. That has to change.
Boston has tried using Jared Sullinger as a second-unit scoring fulcrum, but the Hawks are running him off the floor. Horford sprints 15 feet ahead of Sullinger in transition, and when Atlanta goes to its super-spacing Millsap-Scott front-court, Sullinger has zero chance on defense.
But things like that can flip over one random five-minute stretch. The Mavs were dead without Dirk Nowitzki, until they suddenly rallied when he rested during the 2nd quarter Monday night in Oklahoma City. If the Celtics get anything out of Sullinger or Olynyk, that could swing a three-minute span.
Boston also needs the springier, slashing version of Jae Crowder who reappeared in Game 4.
5. How will both teams navigate the Hawks' pick-and-roll dance?
Stevens once told me the easiest shot to get in basketball is a pick-and-pop jumper for a big guy, and that has been mostly true for the Hawks. Teague goes around a screen from Horford or Millsap, the Celtic defending the screener drops down to corral Teague, and Atlanta's point guard whips the ball back to his big fella -- Millsap for potential 3s, and Horford for midrange jumpers.
Those guys are good shooters, although Millsap slumped to just 32 percent from deep this season and can be reluctant to fire away. That reluctance is one reason the Celtics play him this way: If Millsap hesitates, his defender has time to scurry back.
But those are good shots, and the threat of them can produce other good shots. Both Millsap and Horford can pump fake, drive to the basket, and dish to others. When Boston frets and sends a third defender flying toward them, Horford and Millsap swing the ball to the next guy in line for an open triple:
Boston can avoid these rotations entirely by just ducking under screens and daring Teague to launch; both Washington and Cleveland did a lot of that last season, and came out (mostly) ahead. Boston is already taunting Schroder.
But the Hawks are smart. Start going under, and their bigs will change the conversation by creeping up as if they are going to set a standard pick, stopping about 10 feet short, and just kind of lingering in space. You can't go under a pick that never comes:
That kind of improv opens up the pocket pass to Millsap, who can drive to the rim for the tasty stuff.
This cat-and-mouse game -- really, a constantly changing math problem -- will be fascinating to watch as two smart teams dance around each other.
6. How much will Atlanta post up?
The Hawks have at least one permanent size advantage on the floor at all times, and in Game 3, Millsap finally realized he's bigger and stronger than anyone guarding him. The Smart-on-Millsap novelty worked once, but even as Smart battled, the Celtics had to shade help defenders toward him -- freeing up cutters and unlocking Millsap's passing game.
Millsap is so dangerous, the Celtics are sometimes inverting the matchups -- sticking their center (usually Amir Johnson) on Millsap, and chancing it with Crowder or Jerebko on Horford.
The Hawks have to punish this. Millsap and Horford are capable scorers on the block, and lethal passers.
7. Jerebko at center?
Dirty little secret: Boston's much-ballyhooed new starting five, with Jerebko at power forward, has been outscored during an extremely small sample size over the past two games. Their main super-small lineup, with Jerebko at center, is plus-12 in just 12 minutes -- an even smaller sample.
That lineup is really hard to guard. It stretches Atlanta's defense to its breaking point, and Stevens has trusted it enough to bust it out in crunch time -- even with a late lead in Game 4, when you might assume Stevens would go with his best defensive lineup.
Going super-small would put Boston at a huge size disadvantage, but if Boston's offense sputters, I wonder if Stevens might get a little braver with this group. The Hawks would seem ill-equipped to bully people. They ranked dead last in offensive rebounding rate in the regular-season, and they haven't improved a hair in the playoffs, per NBA.com. They'll attack post mismatches, as they did with the Millsap-Smart head-to-head in Game 4, but in their marrow, Atlanta is not a dump-it-down sort of team.
Plus, that Boston small-group is fast and smart -- capable of fronting the post sending help from the right places, and denying entry passes altogether as the shot clock winds down. They can switch across a lot of positions, and Jerebko has hung with Teague one-on-one after switches.
The smart money is on Stevens continuing to use this group in small doses. Johnson is too important to Boston's defense, and his ability to hit awkward little hooks and flippy shots on the pick-and-roll has been a crucial source of extra offense. But keep an eye on these guys.
8. That thing about Atlanta and open jumpers ...
Atlanta has generated the most wide-open jumpers of any playoff team, but the Hawks are shooting just 27 percent on those looks -- including a ghastly 28 percent on a league-leading 15 wide-open triples per game, according to SportVU tracking data.
Some of this comes down to mediocre shooters missing shots the Celtics are giving them because they are mediocre shooters. But the stretch run of Game 4 also featured Korver and Horford missing open jumpers from their sweet spots.
Atlanta fans will screech that those are shots the Hawks "normally" make. In reality, they are 50-50 shots at best, and in a short series, a couple of games in which 50-50 shots randomly go in at a 25 percent rate can tilt the outcome. Those sorts of bricky games happen all the time over the 82-game slog. We just notice them more in the playoffs.
If this sounds familiar, it's because the same thing happened to Atlanta's beautiful offense during last year's playoffs, sending the Hawks into a sort of existential crisis. "Those numbers have been the hardest thing for me," Budenholzer told me after the Cavaliers eliminated Atlanta last season. "I want to be critical of us, but it's not very critical to say, 'We're just not making open shots.'"
It's happening again. The Hawks look like a better shooting team than they really are. They have Korver, they move the ball a lot, and their two starting bigs are both above-average shooters for their positions; Horford is elite from midrange. But Korver is the only reliably good 3-point shooter on the team, and more to the point, the Hawks just don't have backup plans on those nights the jumper betrays them. They don't get to the line, and they're allergic to offensive rebounds.
They are not going to change now, though it wouldn't shock me if Budenholzer gave Humphries a shot at some point. They are going to wait for those shooting trends to reverse themselves. They are nearly out of time, thanks to Boston's outstanding, ferocious play at home.
On to Game 5 ...