ATLANTA – The best player in this Boston-Atlanta playoff series came into the NBA as an undersized, second-round pick.
And no, I’m not talking about Celtics All-Star Isaiah Thomas who’s
generously listed at 5-foot-9. I’m talking about Atlanta’s three-time All-Star Paul Millsap, who has been Boston’s worst nightmare this season. The 6-8 power forward, drafted out of Louisiana Tech in the second round (47th overall) of the 2006 NBA draft, is averaging 22.5 points and 10.3 rebounds per game against the Celtics in four matchups this season while shooting 57.6 percent from the field and 42.9 percent on 3s.
His 22.5 points scored per game average is his highest against any team the Hawks have faced four times this season. In addition, he also had 139 blocked shots, which was the fifth-highest total in the NBA this season. And his 147 steals was ninth-best total in the league.
"Millsap is a very good player,” Boston’s Avery Bradley told reporters prior to the team departing for Atlanta. “Good players like that in the NBA, they're going to score. All you can do is try to make every possession hard on them. That's what we're going to try to do.”
Boston will try and mix in different players throughout the series on Millsap, although look for Amir Johnson to spend the most time trying to limit Millsap.
“Amir is going to take the challenge,” Bradley added. “I know he's excited about it. He's preparing and today he went hard in practice. He knows that he has a load and he's going to be playing against a good player. He should want to take that challenge. All his teammates, we have his back. We want to take the challenge. I want to guard (Jeff) Teague. I want to guard whoever is on their team that is playing well for them. That has to be our mindset from everybody."
The play of Millsap especially against the Celtics, goes against the belief that Atlanta’s strength is their roster balance and that they are a team whose components collectively is far greater than the talent of one individual player.
And then you see the Hawks play and realize that while there’s some truth to that, Atlanta has a difference-maker that for the Celtics at least, has been a nightmare to deal with all season.
The Celtics understand just how talented Millsap has been this season not only against them but other teams as well. And he makes an impact in a multitude of ways. He score around the basket as well as from the perimeter.
Although he shot 31.9 percent on 3s this season, that number improved to 42.9 percent against the Celtics.
Figuring out the best way to handle Millsap’s versatility will be among the biggest challenges for Boston on Saturday.
“We're very versatile as well,” Celtics big man Jared Sullinger told reporters. “With guys like Kelly (Olynyk), Jonas (Jerebko), even Amir and Tyler (Zeller). We're very versatile. We're looking forward to this matchup and understanding we have a very good chance (to win). We just have to handle our business the way we normally do and have a different mindset of business and intensity going into Game 1.
Sullinger added, “Whoever wins, it's going to be a big battle. We know what the guards can do. Just the bigs have to bring that extra oomph and understand we're guarding someone like Millsap, who is a very good basketball player. Al Horford is a very good basketball player. We have multiple bigs who can do multiple things at multiple times, so we're ready for it.”