The Hawks and Celtics were expected to play the most even series in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. Both teams have elite defenses, brilliant head coaches and talented, but inconsistent offenses. The series was a toss-up to pick and seemed destined to go seven games.
But that was before Boston guard Avery Bradley suffered a hamstring injury in the Celtics' Game 1 loss on Saturday night. Bradley told reporters afterwards that he "heard a pop" after landing awkwardly in the fourth quarter. On Sunday, Celtics coach Brad Stevens told reporters that Bradley will likely miss the remainder of the series.
Without Bradley, it's hard to see how Boston can knock off Atlanta four times over the next six games. Bradley is an undersized shooting guard and an average perimeter shooter, as he hit only 36 percent from deep this season. He's a strong defender, but struggled at times in Game 1.
All that said, he's also a talented and versatile guard who is an integral part of everything Boston does on both sides of the court. Removing him from the equation threatens the very identity Boston forged to roll off 48 wins.
Bradley's offensive value goes deeper than his stats
Though Bradley is known for his defense, the Celtics also rely on his ability to dart off screens, set them himself and create scoring chances. Bradley was Boston's second-leading scorer this season and most productive spot-up player. Nobody on the team knocked down more catch-and-shoot jumpers, according to NBA.com's player tracking data.
Bradley was just 1-7 from deep in Game 1, but his absence late in the fourth quarter was also evident. With him off the floor, the Hawks felt more comfortable collapsing on Isaiah Thomas and being aggressive with their off-ball defensive rotations.
Individually, Thomas will feel the burden of Bradley's injury most. The Celtics were already outperforming their offensive talent with Bradley in the lineup. They scored nearly 104 points per 100 possessions in the regular season while trotting out lineups with players like Evan Turner and Amir Johnson, which is a testament to Stevens' creativity and Thomas' brilliance.
But having Bradley out there helped, too. Curls and pin-down screens were two of Boston's primary weapons during the regular season, and they found some success using them on Saturday night.
Though Thomas was in the game at this moment, plays like these for Bradley allowed Boston to get clean looks without Thomas on the floor. Not being able to use them for the rest of the series will make it that much harder for Boston to score, especially against an elite defense like the Hawks. Atlanta's defense is strong all over the court, but particularly thrives in the restricted area, where it held opponents to a league-low 56.7 percent shooting this season, per NBA.com.
Bradley catch-and-shoot and pull-up jumpers provided Boston an option to counter some of the Hawks' strengths. Now, that option is gone. It'll be especially missed late in games.
If Avery Bradley misses the rest of the series, the Celtics will be without one of their best crunch time players: pic.twitter.com/0WX6QqIRxb— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) April 17, 2016
Oh yeah: he's great on defense, too
The Celtics have a great collective defense, but Bradley was one of the major keys. He's Boston's top perimeter defender, someone who's comfortable chasing Kyle Korver around screens or harassing Jeff Teague on pick-and-rolls. Stevens asked Bradley to do both in Game 1, and while Korver misfired on a bunch of easy looks, Bradley relentlessness did throw off Korver's rhythm early on.
It's also no coincidence that Teague had nine of his 23 points and four of his 12 assists in the fourth quarter. The Celtics were forced to switch without Bradley in the game, and Teague roasted those switches.
Boston also relies heavily on points off turnovers, finishing third in the NBA this season in that category. Bradley is the one who so often triggers those transition buckets, so losing him presents Stevens with yet another problem.
Brad Stevens must now juggle his rotation, and even that may not work
Without Bradley, the Celtics will have to hand sophomore Marcus Smart even more minutes and pray that little-used rookies R.J. Hunter and/or Terry Rozier are ready to contribute. Hunter is the better scorer of the two and certainly a better shooter, but it's hard to picture either he or Rozier doing much of anything against this long and strong Hawks defense.
Assuming Thomas doesn't average 35 points a game for the rest of the series, Stevens will have get creative with his lineups and play-calling. He's certainly capable of doing so, but his roster doesn't give him many options. Bradley was a part of nearly every one of Boston's top five-man units during the regular season.
Instead, Stevens is now forced to pair Evan Turner with Smart and Thomas more than he would like. Turner has some interesting skills and put together a nice season, but he kills the Celtics' spacing because he can't consistently knock down open jumpers.
Boston could decide to give the bigger three-man grouping of Jae Crowder, Jared Sullinger and Amir Johnson more run, but against the Hawks' stellar frontcourt, that's akin to playing from behind. That starting trio struggled badly in Game 1, forcing Stevens to go small to get Boston back in to the game.
To pull off what would now be considered an upset, the Celtics will need a number of breaks. They need big games from Thomas and Smart, continued cold shooting from Korver and standout performances from little-used bench players like Rozier or Hunter. Boston has outperformed its talent all season, so it's not out of the question that Stevens figures out a way to conjure up some more magic without Bradley.
But doing so without one of his most reliable players in the lineup is going to be incredibly difficult.