The Atlanta Hawks are a much deeper team than they were going into the playoffs last season. With a starting lineup of Jeff Teague, Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Marvin Williams and Al Horford the Hawks had one of the most talented starting lineups of all 16 teams that were in the postseason last year.
Sadly they had no bench. The only player that made any major contributions for the Hawks off the bench last season was Jamal Crawford but this year their bench production has been much improved.
And it’s a good thing that they improved their depth during the offseason because this team has had numerous injuries this year. The injury that has had the most impact on the team though was the strained pectoral muscle suffered by Horford at the beginning of the season.
Horford has missed all but 11 games this year which has caused the Hawks to make numerous changes to their lineup throughout the season in order to cover for Horford’s missing production.
And although Horford has said he will be back in time for the playoffs, it is unlikely he will make much of an impact since he will need time to work himself into game shape and regain chemistry with his teammates.
Johnson and Smith have carried the team this year in Horford’s absence but the key to the Hawk’s playoff fortunes is Teague.
Teague stepped in for the injured Kirk Hinrich during the playoffs and made life difficult for last year’s MVP Derrick Rose. Although the Hawks lost in six games, Teague played well the entire series prompting coach Larry Drew to award him the starting position going into this season.
And with the Hawks slated to face the Boston Celtics in the first round of this year’s playoffs, Teague will need to be just as much of a disruptive force against Rajon Rondo as he was against Rose last year.
Rondo is the one that makes the Celtic’s offense go. He leads the league in assists and triple-doubles this season which shows that he can affect a game in many ways. Rondo has had some great games as a scorer but he usually prefers to defer to the big three in that department.
The reason for that is because Rondo is such a poor shooter but like Rose he loves to drive to the basket. Teague will have to use his speed and quickness to stay in front of Rondo while also making Rondo expend energy on the defensive side of the floor.
The Celtics will sport a strong starting unit that consists of Rondo, Avery Bradley, Paul Pierce, Brandon Bass, and Kevin Garnett while the ageless Ray Allen will provide scoring off the bench. The Hawks aren’t as accomplished of a scoring team as Boston is but they have shown in the past that they can give the Celtics problems with their youth, length and tough defense.
The last time the Hawks faced the Celtics in the playoffs they pushed them to a decisive Game 7 before finally losing to the Celtics who went on to win the championship that year. The Celtics’ trio of Pierce, Allen and Garnett was considered an old group back then and they’re four years older now.
The Hawks on the other hand are more experienced now having advanced to the second round of the playoffs three years straight. The Celtics had home court advantage last time they played the Hawks which was crucial for them because they failed to win any games in Atlanta. This year the Hawks will have home court.
Regardless of where they play though, Teague will be the difference. Teague is young and still learning the position but his athleticism at point guard is a major upgrade over Hinrich and Mike Bibby who was the starter when the Hawks played the Celtics four years ago.
But just like he did versus Rose last year, Teague will have to bring his A-game because Rondo always raises his play in the postseason. And how Teague performs will ultimately determine whether the Hawks bow out in the first round or make their first appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals since moving to Atlanta.
Roosevelt Hall is an NFL Blogger for The Sport Mentalist and an NBA Blogger for The Sport Mentalist 2. He is also a Sports Reporter for Pro Sports Lives. He can be contacted at RHall_TPFB@Yahoo.com and be sure to follow him on Twitter @sportmentalist.