The 66-game regular season, mercifully, is over. The NBA jam-packed 66 games into a space where 50 usually went, and the result was a strange five-month run that had us talking about rested legs and oddball rotations more than we spoke of learning and growing and all that typically-mindful stuff that comes to our heads when discussing the NBA. The playoffs start on Saturday, though, and the brains behind Ball Don't Lie are ready to break down the first round matchups.
From your pal, Kelly Dwyer
Hey. It's Kelly. That wasn't fun, was it? The silly lockout, the terrible season, the Dwight Howard. It's OK, though. It's over now. That is a bird chirping in the distance, I made a pretty good sandwich for your lunch, and we don't have anything to do when you get home from work but watch a series of basketball games played by players that are rested, well-instructed, and mindful of what town they're in.
You're going to feel better, now. Your pal insists on it.
This series might not be awful.
I mean, it very well could be. Though Josh Smith and Rajon Rondo, buds for life, remain two of the NBA's most entertaining players, the sheer amount of times the Hawks and Celtics have met since the 2007-08 season just about ensures that this will be a dull old time. There's no Al Horford, and as Dan points out below, the Celtics are defensive stalwarts who can barely put a string of baskets together on most nights, and especially against a solid defensive outfit like the Hawks.
Toss in the fact that this will likely be a long series, and you can be sure that in spite of Boston's two recent trips to the NBA Finals, the entire viewing public is about a week and a half removed from saying, "geez, just get to the Bulls, already" to a TV in an empty room.
Well, let me fill that room as your interim Internet friend.
This feels right. This feels like, as someone who could never get past Soda Popinski on Mike Tyson's Punch-Out, when you would get knocked on your tail and sent back to square up against Bald Bull. Sure, you could usually dismiss Bald Bull by standing up to the giant, as Doc advised, but it was still quite the undertaking for you, the not-quite-champion. It's OK, friend. I literally have a Nintendo and working Punch-Out cartridge in my living room. You can look at it for a dollar.
Your pal is here to tell you that you'll be watching a Boston Celtics team that could still make the Finals, even as they slog through the first round against Atlanta. You should remember that, if only to keep you entertained. But that "could" before "still make the Finals" is significant. And, more than likely, the Celtics are not-quite-champions, five years into what Bob Ryan called "a three-year plan."
These bad boys put it together, though. A 24-10 end to the season after "bottoming out" at 15-17 just before the All-Star break. And though these grinding series' can wear on a guy, even when the Hawks tend to put together long series' of teams trading blowout wins, you have to appreciate both ends on this.
Because the Hawks could have given up, satisfied with stasis, months ago. And with Al Horford missing 55 games and likely the entire postseason, the team could have packed it in, frustrated at middling output as usual. Larry Drew held things together, and though that's not really going to draw in the viewers ("Hawks, Holdin' It Together!"), it's at least admirable.
And it's probably going to be a boring watch. But that's what I'm here for, pal.
Celtics in seven.
'Deep Thoughts' and Cheap Thoughts with Dan Devine
For every postseason matchup, Ball Don't Lie's resident dummy will offer a topically appropriate entry from the best-selling series of "Deep Thoughts" books written by legendary humorist Jack Handey, plus some of his own original thoughts on the playoff series. The combination will cost you literally nothing; we suggest you use the savings to purchase one of Mr. Handey's life-changing books.
No. 4 Boston Celtics vs. No. 5 Atlanta Hawks
"Sometimes I think I'd be better off dead. No, wait. Not me, you."
I don't know to a certainty that Kevin Garnett has ever entertained "woe is me" thoughts bordering on suicidal ideation, but I'm sure beyond the telling of it that, if he ever did, this is about how it would go.
He would think about whatever you think about in moments like that, and then instantly revert to seeking ways to fulfill his prime directive: eliminating you. Just as he eliminates openings for jitterbug guards trying to dart around above-the-arc screens, snuffs out best-drawn-up plans for opponents' buckets and kills our preconceptions about what he's still capable of accomplishing. Seventeen years and nearly 1,400 games into his career, Garnett continues to play at an absurdly high level as the organizing principle of the Boston defense, even as an out-of-position center, even as he prepares to push the odometer past 50,000 career NBA minutes this postseason. It is ridiculous; he is killing it; we are dead.
You know who's not dead? (SEGUE ALERT!)
The Atlanta Hawks, thanks in large part to turning a pretty impressive trick themselves -- pivoting off the loss of two-time All-Star center Al Horford just 11 games into the year. Larry Drew's squad made do with what they had, filling the gap at the five by leaning heavily on Zaza Pachulia (who I will always contend looks like the dude from "The Truth About Cats and Dogs") and, to significantly lesser extents, out-of-position forwards Josh Smith and Vladimir Radmanovic, and out-of-ability pivots Jason Collins and Erick Dampier in what wound up being some weeeeird lineups. The patchwork quilt covered, though, as Atlanta went 33-22 in the remaining 55 games of the lockout-shortened campaign, got to 40 wins and finished one game better than the Celtics, giving the Hawks home-court advantage in the first round, a chance to draw first blood and the opportunity to close at home should the series go seven.
Which it very well could, considering how closely the teams matched up in their three contests this year. Boston took two of the three, but check out the team-vs.-team comps at NBA.com: The C's and Hawks scored exactly the same amount of points, were separated by 1.3 rebounds per 48 minutes of game time, shot 43 percent and 43.5 percent from the field respectively, and posted offensive and defensive ratings (the estimated amount of points scored and allowed per 100 possessions) between 91-per-100 and 92-per-100. It's a pretty narrow gap, by that look, which makes sense, given we're talking about a 4-5 matchup where the two teams are divided by just one game in the standings.
Both teams can defend, with the Celtics allowing just 98.2 points per 100 possessions (tops in the league by Basketball-Reference.com's numbers, one-tenth of a point better than the Chicago Bulls) and Atlanta placing sixth at 101.2-per-100. The question, as framed so well in a recent piece on the East's second tier by SI.com's Zach Lowe, is whether the Hawks (16th in the league in offensive efficiency) can score enough to slay the Celtics, something they couldn't do during their first-round matchup in 2007, when Atlanta posted excellent offensive ratings at home but dismal ones in Boston.
The flip in dominant venue could impact things, as could Drew's tendency (without Horford) to go to what Celtics coach Doc Rivers called "big/small" lineups, according to WEEI.com's Paul Flannery — meaning Smith at center, reserves Marvin Williams and Tracy McGrady at forward spots and 6-foot-8 All-Star Joe Johnson at shooting guard alongside point man Jeff Teague. The quicker, more malleable and offensively potent group could cause matchup problems for undersized Celtics off-guard Avery Bradley, who is six inches shorter than Johnson, and power forward Brandon Bass, who's significantly less fleet of foot than Williams. If Atlanta can take advantage of those mismatches, it could mitigate the impact of a C's lineup that's been dominant for Doc, and much more productive offensively than Boston's sixth-worst season-long offensive efficiency mark would indicate.
On the one hand, all that cross-matching and lineup changing and rotation juggling could make this series fascinating; on the other, the likelihood that we're going to watch two excellent defenses make two less-than-excellent offenses cry uncle could make this series about as enjoyable as oral surgery. When the anesthesia wears off, though, I expect the combination of Garnett, Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce and a breakout performance from second-year pro Bradley to push the Celtics to Round 2.
PREDICTION: Celtics in seven.
Five Predictions for Boston vs. Atlanta, From the Sensible Eric Freeman
1. Atlanta will really, really miss Al Horford.
2. Rajon Rondo will finish the series with at least two triple-doubles.
3. Kevin Garnett will try to pick five fights with Zaza Pachulia.
4. Larry Drew will begin to grow one of those felt-like Mike Woodson goatees.
5. Celtics in six.
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