Atlanta Hawks defend and advance

Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images   Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images   Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images /

The NBA playoffs are here. The games are tighter, the lights are brighter, and the narratives are getting thick. It can be a lot to keep up with but don’t worry we’re here to help. Throughout the NBA postseason, FanSided will be gathering together some of the most talented writers from our network for a daily recap of our favorite stories from the night before.

Welcome to the Rotation.

An early exit is meaningless in the scope of Danny Ainge’s vision

Maxwell Ogden | @MaxwellOgden | Daily KnicksHoopsHabit

The Boston Celtics may have the brightest future of any team in the Eastern Conference. That’s a bold statement that can be contested and debated for months on end, but the beautiful reality in Boston is that the organization has as much control of its own destiny as any of its competitors.

An early exit from the 2016 NBA Playoffs does nothing to change that reality. Boston finished the 2015-16 NBA regular season at 48-34, which landed it in a four-way tie for the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. Tiebreakers pushed Boston to the No. 5 seed, but the success was far greater than anyone envisioned.

Unfortunately, that wonderful run came to a screeching halt against the Atlanta Hawks in Game 6.

For the second consecutive game, and the third time this series, the Celtics were entirely overmatched. The team never quit, but despite playing against a Hawks squad that lacks a true rim protector, it could not create the easy looks necessary to halt cold stretches. As Boston leaves the TD Garden for the last time this season, however, it has nothing to hang its head about. Instead, it has plenty to hang its hat on.

That all starts with one of the best coaches in the NBA. Brad Stevens plays a defining role in the future of the Celtics. He possesses a rare combination of youth and immediate value, with a relatable young face and a capacity for in-game adjustments that helped Boston to its highest win total since 2010-11. As if that weren’t appealing enough, Stevens took the blame for the team’s shortcomings in the playoffs:

This man is a wonderful head coach.

Perhaps the most important realization from Boston’s postseason run was that Isaiah Thomas can handle the pressure. Some will talk efficiency and other statistics that lose their merit during the playoffs, but his three games with 25-plus points, including a 42-point clinic in Game 3, paint quite the picture.

Thomas may not be the franchise player who leads Boston to the promise land, but he sure as hell knows how to step up when the pressure mounts.

As if making the playoffs, finding a brilliant head coach, and realizing that a star is in their midst wasn’t enough, Boston is about to own the 2016 NBA Draft. Boston is in possession of the third-best draft lottery odds, four other picks in the Top 35, and eight overall selections in the 2016 NBA Draft. This isn’t the greatest draft class of all-time, but Boston now has a roster flush with quality role players, a star-caliber point guard, a breakout performer in Marcus Smart, and a number of draft picks to help piece it all together.

If all else fails, Boston has a powerful crop of bargaining chips for a potential trade.

Objectively, how many teams can claim to have flirted with 50 wins, received a draft pick with Top 3 lottery odds, sent a player to the All-Star Game, and unearthed one of the best coaches in the world in the same season? If any others qualify, how many can accurately say they’ve accumulated the assets to trade for a superstar without actually losing the core of the roster?

The answer: one. And that’s what truly matters in the scope of Danny Ainge’s vision.

Hey Rookie, Welcome to the NBA

Jeremy Karll | @JeremyKarll5 | Hardwood Houdini

Flashback to the 2015 NBA Draft. The Boston Celtics selected Terry Rozier and R.J. Hunter, both in the first round. Rozier was coming into the NBA after a great career with Louisville and Hunter came in after hitting a game-winning three to upset the No. 3 seeded Baylor Bears in the NCAA tournament that year. Neither were supposed to compete for Rookie of the Year honors, however, having neither crack the rotation until the playoffs was unexpected.

Now flashback to Game 1 of their first round series against the Atlanta Hawks. Boston’s starting shooting guard Avery Bradley went down with a hamstring injury in the fourth quarter. It wasn’t shown in Game 1 but Brad Stevens would be forced to turn to his two rookies in their first round series after they barely saw any time in the regular season.

Rozier and Hunter appeared in a combined 75 games in the regular season. R.J. Hunter was never able to crack the rotation but Rozier ended up getting significant playing time when Jae Crowder went down with a high ankle sprain with a month left in the season. There was still no way anyone expected Rozier to play as big of a role as he did in the first round, and Hunter had become a second thought before Bradley’s injury.

After the Celtics got into early foul trouble in Game 2, Hunter entered the game and ended up playing 15 minutes in Game 2 — the most playing time he had seen since December 26. It was obvious the rookie out of Georgia State wasn’t used to the extra playing time as he was consistently beat off the dribble, lost his man (Kyle Korver in Game 2) and was abused by the backdoor cut.

In Game 2, Rozier was as aggressive as the Celtics have seen him during his rookie season. He shot 4-of-7 from the field – the most shot attempts in a game this season – and scored a season-high 10 points. He also continued to rebound the ball well and ran the team when Brad Stevens needed him to. Both rookies knew their role and they stuck to it, however, when needing to replace a player like Bradley, throwing two rookies into the fire won’t do the trick.

Hunter and Rozier both showed great poise throughout the whole series, considering they rarely saw the court throughout their rookie seasons, but that wasn’t enough for Boston. Atlanta was able to target them when on offense and run their offense through whichever guard they were defending. The Celtics also felt Bradley’s loss on offense as neither Hunter or Rozier are effective at creating shots for themselves and haven’t shot three-pointers that well.

The Celtics didn’t lose their first round series solely because of Bradley’s injury. There were many reasons why it didn’t go their way. But when you lose as big of a part of your offense and defense as Bradley was – and your leader in minutes per game – it’s going to take a toll on your team, especially when you’re forced to turn to two rarely played rookies to fill in the gaps. R.J. Hunter and Terry Rozier showed a lot of potential but getting thrown into the fire during the playoffs usually leads to disaster for a team.

Atlanta Hawks were stifling

Ian Levy | @HickoryHigh | FanSided

The Atlanta Hawks had one of the best defenses in the league this season, surrendering just 98.8 points per 100 possessions, fewer than any team save the San Antonio Spurs. A combination of careful schemes, precise execution, aggressive intensity, and unique personnel, they flexed that defensive muscle on the Boston Celtics, beating them in six games. In this series, the Celtics managed just 91.3 points per 100 possessions, 12.6 points per 100 possessions below their regular season average.

Atlanta doesn’t have a dominating rim protector in the mold of Hassan Whiteside or Rudy Gobert, but what they did to Boston on the interior was startling. The Celtics made just 51.2 percent of their shots inside the restricted area in the series. Looking at their playoff shot chart is like staring into a deep well drilled into the heart of an icy blue glacier.

Swish_shotchart (4)
Swish_shotchart (4) /

Interestingly, Boston didn’t have much of a problem getting to the basket against Atlanta. As a team, they averaged 39. 7 drives per game in the playoffs, more than any other team and 12.7 more drives per game than they averaged during the regular season. However, they shot 40.2 percent on their drives against the Hawks and managed just 0.542 points per drive. Both numbers were well below their regular season efficiency.

And of course, there was this:

Isaiah Thomas had some individual success attacking the Hawks defense, particularly in Games 3 and 4. In the last two games of the series, whenever he collapsed the defense he seemed to find himself buried underneath it. There is no shame in struggling to score against a great defensive team but Boston will have good reason to be frustrated with themselves for all the opportunities they created and failed to take advantage of. Missed layups and missed three-pointers make for a long summer.

Yes, Tim Hardaway Jr. had a meaningful playoff moment

Brad Rowland | @BTRowland | FanSided

Tim Hardaway Jr. has largely been a punchline during the 2015-2016 NBA season, and the jokes started flowing before the campaign began. Hardaway Jr. was acquired by the Atlanta Hawks in a (very) controversial draft day deal in which Mike Budenholzer and Wes Wilcox elected to trade down twice in the first round of the NBA Draft, flipping the number 15 overall pick into some future draft fodder and the rights to Hardaway Jr.

The internet did not take kindly to this acquisition for the Hawks.

Atlanta’s philosophy on the deal was simple in that they were looking to acquire a young veteran that was somehow established, rather than investing a mid-first round pick in a player that would not help a squad that was on the heels of a 60-win season. However, Hardaway Jr. was a deeply flawed player during his time with the New York Knicks, and Atlanta seemingly became well aware of those issues during his early stint with the organization.

In fact, Tim Hardaway Jr. just… didn’t play at all.

The now 24-year-old shooting guard did not appear in a regular season game for the Hawks until Nov. 24 (the 16th game of the season), and after an underwhelming four-game stretch in the rotation, Budenholzer sent him away for another 16-game hiatus between Nov. 30 and Jan. 5. As you can imagine, the jokes kept flowing.

This was a situation in which the Hawks stumbled into what appeared to be a promising first-round pick via a swap with the Brooklyn Nets, and they appeared to fully squander that opportunity with the Hardaway Jr. investment. Fast-forward to Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, however, and it is fairly easy to see what the Hawks were doing in theory.

Hardaway Jr. played a key role in buoying Atlanta’s performance in the first half of their close-out win over the Celtics in Game 6, and he showed off the apparent upside that the Hawks were coveting. In short order, he created five straight points and an assist, and later, Hardaway Jr. even flashed the type of athleticism and individual shot creation that a team like Atlanta seeks in a big way given their weakness in that area on the wing.

It was a (wildly) small sample size and, quite frankly, Hardaway Jr. hasn’t been good this season, but it was something. Detractors can undoubtedly point to the fact that the former Michigan swingman set career-low marks in PER (11.7), three-point shooting (33.8%) and scoring (13.6 points per 36 minutes), and his defense still leaves a lot to be desired despite modest improvements in Atlanta’s system. At the end of the day, though, Tim Hardaway Jr. had a playoff moment for a team that advanced to the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

At this point, it is fair to say that the Hawks will probably “lose” the transaction that landed Hardaway Jr. in Atlanta, but the door to the jury room might be cracked a bit wider than you think.