This Bud’s for you, Brad Stevens: Celtics-Hawks stands out in round 1

When the Boston Celtics and Atlanta Hawks begin their best-of-seven playoff series, the NBA will probably witness its most compelling first-round showdown.

That’s a fat dollop of praise to heap on a series which hasn’t even begun… and yet, that’s just one reason why this clash is so thoroughly attractive.

Let’s not downplay that notion, of course: The advance publicity attached to Celtics-Hawks includes the idea that it is indeed the best first-round series on paper. The four West series have clear favorites (though Portland has a real chance to upset the Clippers). Cleveland and Toronto are strong favorites, though the Raptors do need to shoulder the pressure of the moment and carry the weight of the franchise’s snake-bitten playoff history.

The only first-round series which seems as evenly matched as Celtics-Hawks is Charlotte-Miami. This makes sense. The Hornets and Heat shared 48-34 records with Boston and Atlanta. A multi-layered tiebreaker placed these four teams in the 3 through 6 seeding slots.

Miami, though, possesses an aging star (Dwyane Wade) and an absent one (Chris Bosh). The Heat simultaneously have a lot more at stake than the Hornets, and yet they’re also depleted enough that if they don’t make a deep playoff run, they can easily (and legitimately) rationalize their failure.

Celtics-Hawks promises the competitiveness of Hornets-Heat, but without a major absence akin to Bosh, and without an underdog which has nothing to lose (the Hornets). No team enjoys losing, but if any first-round series featured two teams which would be equally stung by defeat, it’s this one. Only Toronto-Indiana comes close, but since that’s a 2-7 series in which the Raptors are under immense pressure to win, it’s clear that Toronto would be crushed by a loss far more than Indiana would.

This is the series which matters equally — and considerably — to each side.

Again, that’s just one reason this is the must-see series of the first round.

Apr 22, 2015; Atlanta, GA, USA; Former Atlanta Hawks coaches Lenny Wilkens (right) and Mike Fratello (left) honor current Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer (center) with the 2014-15 NBA Coach of the Year Award prior to game two of the first round of the NBA Playoffs against the Brooklyn Nets at Philips Arena. The Hawks won 96-91. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

Apr 22, 2015; Atlanta, GA, USA; Former Atlanta Hawks coaches Lenny Wilkens (right) and Mike Fratello (left) honor current Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer (center) with the 2014-15 NBA Coach of the Year Award prior to game two of the first round of the NBA Playoffs against the Brooklyn Nets at Philips Arena. The Hawks won 96-91. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports

Steve Clifford-Erik Spoelstra is pretty darn good in Hornets-Heat. Terry Stotts-Doc Rivers in Portland-Clippers could become intriguing. Yet, the best coaching matchup in the first round is right here in Celtics-Hawks.

Mike Budenholzer beat out Steve Kerr to win the 2015 NBA Coach of the Year Award. He certainly didn’t do the best job in the league this season… and yet he did a far better job than a 48-34 record could ever indicate. Atlanta was sinking just after the All-Star break and needed to find itself if it wanted to become a team capable of winning a playoff series. Promptly, Budenholzer pulled the Hawks out of their tailspin — enough to earn home court in this series.

Budenholzer received steady production from his team a year ago — that’s why it won 60 games (a 22-game improvement over 2014) — but this season was substantially different. Kyle Korver, in many ways the engine which enabled Atlanta to be a 60-win team in 2015, has not shot as well this season. His decline has affected floor spacing and placed more pressure on other players to make shots. Paul Millsap has continued to flourish, showing why he might be the most underappreciated star-level player in the league. Yet, that performance has merely compensated for Korver’s regression. It has kept the Hawks afloat. It hasn’t enabled this team to improve upon last year’s 60-win campaign.

A 12-win downturn suggests that Budenholzer hasn’t coached well, but when taking into consideration the departure of DeMarre Carroll (Toronto) and the injury to Tiago Splitter — not to mention the sorry state of the team just after the All-Star break, when it lost back-to-back home games — Bud has done a very good job with his roster.

For the Celtics, the specific journey of the regular season was different, but the reality of overachieving remains the same.


The Celtics were adrift and unable to win consistently at home in the first two months of the season, but in early January, they began a lengthy home-court winning streak. Jae Crowder became an indispensible force at both ends. Evan Turner became a highly productive sixth man. Isaiah Thomas took off — literally and figuratively. This collection of disparate parts came together under Stevens’s guidance… enough, at any rate, to win at Golden State and break the Warriors’ long home winning streak.

Stevens has put himself in position to become the NBA’s next great head coach. He’s setting up the Celtics to become elite again, especially since the organization owns multiple first-round draft picks this June.

Stevens and Budenholzer — like Spoelstra (Miami) and Clifford (Charlotte) — rescued their teams from an in-season freefall. Yet, in order to further underscore why this series is so much more interesting than Heat-Hornets, it should be noted that both Stevens and Bud coached against Cleveland — and David Blatt, not Tyronn Lue — in last year’s playoffs.

Cleveland played a slow game and committed itself completely to the defensive end of the floor in the 2015 postseason. The Cavs shut down Kyle Korver in the East Finals, sweeping Atlanta. Earlier, they bottled up the Celtics and got stronger as the series went along, bringing out the brooms in Boston.

Stevens and Budenholzer were smoked by Blatt and Cleveland a year ago, but now that Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving are healthy for the playoffs, and now that Tyronn Lue is coaching the team instead of Blatt, the Boston-Atlanta winner will face a very different group of Cavaliers in the second round, assuming Cleveland handles Detroit.

Stevens, Budenholzer, and their teams desperately want that chance. They want to win the East and pursue a title, but they also want that second crack at the Cavs. A meeting with Cleveland might not be winnable, but such an experience would at least show the Celtics or the Hawks exactly what they need to do in the offseason, beginning with the draft and continuing into the summer of free agency.

* The series figures to be close.

* The coaching matchup is excellent.

* Both teams want a revenge-flavored reunion with Cleveland and LeBron… but a different Cavalier coach.

* Both teams want to at least get the fullest possible sense of where they stand heading into next season.

Celtics. Hawks. It might not be Bird and Dominique in 1988, but it should still be the best series of the first round.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |