The NHL playoffs are underway and the NBA playoffs start Saturday night. To spice things up, I have decided to do an NHL/NBA playoff challenge series. Here are the rules: 1. For each round of the NHL and NBA playoffs, I will select one series for the challenge. The participants must pick the team they think will win and the number of games they think the series will be settled in. 2. If the team you selected wins the series, you get 2 points. 3. If the team you selected wins AND you correctly picked the number of games, you get an additional 2 points for a total of 4. 4. If your team wins but you are off on the number estimate by 1 game you get 1 point for a total of 3. 5. If your team wins but you are off by 2 or more games you receive no additional points for a total of 2 points. 6. If your team loses, you can earn a consolation point for either A) having the number of games right or B) if the series goes to 7 games. In this way, it is possible to earn anywhere from 0 to 4 points for each series for a maximum total of 32 points across 8 series (4 NHL, 4 NBA).
Following a lackluster start to the campaign — the Hawks lost more games before the All-Star break than they did throughout the 2014-15 season — Atlanta hit its stride not because of Mike Budenholzer's pace-and-space attack, but because of its smothering defense. Since the break, the Hawks have been the NBA's top defense, allowing just 96.8 points per 100 possessions. The only team within sight of that mark has been the San Antonio Spurs, the league's No. 1 defense overall. Anchored by Paul Millsap and Al Horford in the middle, the Hawks force opponents into difficult shots, limit their free-throw opportunities and do a decent job of forcing turnovers. Even the Hawks' Achilles heel, rebounding, has not helped opponents find much success. The question will be if the Hawks' middle-of-the-pack offense can hit its stride — unlike last postseason, when open shots dwindled and two close series (Nets, Wizards) funneled into a sweep at the hands of Cleveland. The Hawks' main advantage will be its frontcourt's versatility and skill, but it will need point guards Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder to be in top form, wings Kyle Korver and Kent Bazemore to provide floor spacing and a not-too-deep bench to step up if they want another chance to knock off Cleveland.
It took Brad Stevens nearly half the season to sort through all of Boston's bodies and settle on a rotation. But after about 2 1/2 months of .500 ball, the Celtics started to take off in mid-January, producing points at a near-top-10 level over the season's final three months. Suddenly, one of the league's nastiest defenses — a panic-inducing, turnover-generating meat grinder powered by perimeter pitbulls Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley and Marcus Smart — was supported by an offense that could give opponents headaches, too. Isaiah Thomas led the charge, building on the pick-and-roll playmaking prowess he displayed after joining the C's at the 2015 trade deadline to establish himself as not only a starter, but a legitimate All-Star and one of the game's toughest covers. Perhaps more importantly, though, Stevens seemed to have found an answer for generating offense when Thomas hit the bench, uncovering a mix-and-match starter/reserve lineup — Bradley and Smart in the backcourt alongside point forward Evan Turner and floor-spacing bigs Jerebko and Kelly Olynyk — that started taking opponents' second units to the woodshed, outscoring them by nearly 20 points per 100 possessions since mid-January. The offensive uptick also coincided with Stevens moving offseason addition David Lee out of the frontcourt rotation; the Celtics bought the veteran out in February, after which he'd land with the Dallas Mavericks and help them earn a Western Conference playoff spot. The sans-Thomas part hasn't totally persisted, though; since the All-Star break, the Celtics have gone from scoring like a top-five offense with Isaiah on the floor to a 76ers-and-Lakers-level yikes festival when he sits. With the exception of Thomas handling one-on-one, no single Celtic scares you, and they've been middling of late, going 9-8 over their last 17 games, but this is a group that took the Warriors to the limit in Boston before becoming the first team in 14 months to take them out in Oakland