You'd figure that without Rajon Rondo in Game 2, the Boston Celtics' defense would be under hard pressure from the Atlanta Hawks' talented backcourt. Instead, the Celtics held the Hawks to 35 percent shooting and 80 points in 90 possessions. Jeff Teague and Joe Johnson, the aforementioned talented backcourt, combined to shoot 13-35 from the floor. Atlanta as a whole shot just 48 percent at the rim as Kevin Garnett disrupted everything that came within his sphere of influence in 40 minutes of tremendous play.
A lion's share of credit for Boston's incredible defensive performance,both in Game 2 and over the course of the season, in which they finished No. 1 in the NBA in defensive efficiency, goes to Garnett, who despite his age and athletic deterioration remains perhaps the most well-rounded and effective defender in the NBA. Rondo is also an excellent defender, and on Tuesday everyone who hadn't already seen it figured out how special Avery Bradley can be on that end.
According to mySynergySports.com, Bradley was one of the top point guard defenders in the league during the regular season, holding opponents to 0.74 points per possession (No. 40 in the entire NBA) and just 0.65 points per possession on the pick and roll (32nd). Bradley moved over to the point due to Rondo's absence; he had been starting for Ray Allen at two-guard. When Bradley moved, Mickael Pietrus -- another strong defender -- moved in as the starting two-guard, and Marquis Daniels took a large role off the bench.
That's a talented backcourt rotation, which was obvious on Tuesday: all of the Hawks' guards combined to shoot 17-47 from the floor.
Zach Lowe raised a great point in the aftermath: without Al Horford to worry about down low, KG was free to disrupt all penetration into the lane. The Hawks simply couldn't take advantage because the players Garnett cheated off of were Jason Collins and Ivan Johnson. Were it Horford, or were Garnett on Smith full-time, it could have been a different story. But the Hawks aren't getting Horford back this series, so this is their puzzle: how do you occupy Kevin Garnett so that the guards can take advantage when they do manage to beat Boston's excellent perimeter defenders?
It's quite a pickle, and when Rondo returns for Game 3, it's only going to get worse for Atlanta. They'll need some hot shooting from Johnson, more big numbers from Smith, or a complete offensive implosion from Boston -- all of which are possible, and the last of which seems particularly probable at some point -- to take back the series advantage in Games 3 and 4.
If we want to look ahead, which is admittedly disrespectful to a good Atlanta team, we need to acknowledge that Chicago's offense without Derrick Rose is ripe for devastation by the Celtics. C.J. Watson and John Lucas III were completely overmatched by the Sixers' backcourt on Tuesday as Philly evened up that series 1-1. Rondo doesn't need a whole lot of help to get going offensively, and while Watson is a surprisingly good defender, there's little question that the Celtics' All-Star can get the upper hand. The Bulls have amazing frontcourt depth, and Garnett will be punished if he deserts Joakim Noah like he is leaving the Hawks' big men. On offense, Garnett has struggled to beat the Hawks' defenders. He'll have even more trouble against the Bulls' Noah, Taj Gibson and Omer Asik. Not to mention, Luol Deng will pose Pierce more problems than anyone on Atlanta can.
But man, if the Celtics play defense like this, the Bulls could meet their fate in the second round ... assuming both teams get to that point
The Hook is a twice-weekly NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.